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The Nation

The Experts on Iraq

Some years ago Nation patriarch Victor Navasky and his sometime collaborator in mischief Chris Cerf published The Experts Speak: The Definitive Guide to Authoritative Misinformation, a sort of Guinness Book of World Records of experts who were wrong in every field.

Now the duo is back and have embarked on a sequel -- experts who were wrong about Iraq. They're interested in exact quotations (the shorter the better) from politicians, professors, pundits, the military, whomever and they've asked for help from Nation online readers.

Here are a few examples of what they're looking for:

"We shall be greeted, I think, in Baghdad and Basra, with kites and boom boxes."
Fouad Ajami, Professor of Middle East Studies at John Hopkins University in the Washington Post on the likely outcome of an American invasion of Iraq.

"I will bet you the best dinner in the Gaslight district of San Diego that military action will not last more than a week."
Bill O'Reilly, Fox News

"Ladies and gentlemen, these are not assertions. These are facts, corroborated by many sources, some of them sources of the intelligence services of other countries."
Colin Powell offering "proof," before the United Nations Security Council, to back up his claims about Iraq's possession of WMD.

As Nation readers know, this is just a very short sampling. The experts were wrong about the future, the past, and the present of Iraq. The goal of this new book is to document the errors, the arrogance and the mendacity with short, pungent quotes that speak for themselves.

Any help you can provide will be much appreciated. Please send suggested quotes to Navasky and Cerf at missionaccomplishediraq@gmail.com.

Veterans' Health-Care System Does Not 'Support The Troops'

With soldiers being endlessly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the system that is supposed to provide the injured with disability benefits is broken. So says an independent commission report released this week. The report, put out by the Veteran's Disability Benefits Commission notes that there is inadequate information-sharing between government departments and there is little communication between doctors and government officials dealing with veterans claims. Worse, the information that needs to be shared is apparently often not very reliable in the first place.

A House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday reviewed the 544-page commission report which details how unresponsive the executive branch and military are to veteran's medical needs. James Terry Scott, chairman of the independent commission, said at the hearing that there is a lack of expertise among clinicians in army hospitals and that veterans frequently receive inadequate medical advice, especially concerning posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The report chronicled the stunning backlog in processing claims, which the Government Accountability Office first documented two weeks ago. The GAO report found disability payments were delayed an average of six months after the claim was made.

Committee members and Terry spent much of the hearing agreeing that the military needs more doctors who can identify and competently address PTSD. Joshua Kors has chronicled for The Nation has how some military doctors avoid dealing with PTSD by falsely diagnosing veterans with a pre-existing personality disorder instead.

As Kors reported, if the military diagnoses a personality disorder as a pre-existing condition, then it does not have to pay for medical benefits. According to the commission's report, in the mid-1980s, the Pentagon, as a cost-cutting measure, encouraged military doctors to diagnose veterans with only one condition. That means that if a military doctor can diagnose a veteran suffering from PTSD with another pre-existing condition, the pentagon does not have to provide treatment for PTSD.

Committee chair Bob Filner, a California Democrat, said he hoped he could add an amendment to this year's military spending bill that would deny the Pentagon this dodge. What about overhauling the entire dysfunctional veterans' health care system? Filner said that while he strongly agrees with the commission's recommendations for fundamental change he doubts Congress can take up this matter until next year.

Of course, if Congress continues to fund the wars, the problem will be even more massive next year then it is now.

Five Years On....

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Congress's vote to authorize the Bush Administration to overthrow the government of Iraq by military force. The Nation opposed the war authorization. In "An Open Letter to Congress," which we published on the magazine's cover on the eve of the vote, we argued that it would have "a significance that goes far beyond the war." Our opposition has been fully, tragically confirmed by the human and political disasters of these last few years.

As we mark this anniversary, it is time to consider the longterm damage the grievously misconceived "war on terrorism" has inflicted on our security and relationship with the world. Eventually US troops will leave Iraq because the brutal facts on the ground will compel it. But even as we struggle for an exit strategy, our political system continues to evade the challenge of finding an exit from the "war on terror." At a time when we need a coherent alternative to the Bush doctrine and an alternative vision of what this country's role in the world should be, we see both parties calling for intensifying the "war on terror" --even for increasing the size of the military, and for expanding its ability to go places and do things. But who is asking the fundamental question: Won't a war without end do more to weaken our security and democracy than seriously address the threats and challenges ahead?

Witness the collateral damage to our democracy. This Administration has used the "war" as justification for almost anything--unlawful spying on Americans, illegal detention policies, hyper-secrecy, equating dissent with disloyalty and condoning torture.

The Administration has also justified the expansion of America's military capacity--over 700 bases in more than 60 countries, annual military budgets nearing 700 billion dollars--as necessary to counter the threat of Islamic extremism. What too few politicians are willing to say is that combating terrorism--a brutal, horrifying tactic--is not a "war" and that military action is the wrong weapon. Illegality and immorality aside, it simply doesn't succeed. Yes, terrorism does pose a threat to national and international security that can never be eliminated. But there are far more effective (and ethical) ways to advance US security than a forward-based and military-heavy strategy of intrusion into the Islamic world. Indeed, the failed Iraq war demonstrated anew the limits of military power.

Fighting terror requires genuine cooperation with other nations in policing and lawful and targeted intelligence work; smart diplomacy; withdrawal of support for oppressive regimes that generate hatred of the US; and real pressure to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and justice and a secure state for the Palestinians.

It is also worth remembering as we mark this anniversary that military invasion and occupation, and crusades masquerading as foreign policy, divert precious resources from real security. Five years ago, the doubts and warnings about military action in Iraq were brushed aside (including those clearly and consistently expressed by the Nation). Now that reality has confirmed the argument, isn't it time to act on the knowledge?

Alongside the get-out-of-Iraq debate, the political system needs a parallel debate that lays out how we will exit this "long war" -- which is a formula for unlimited militarization and recurring military conflicts. (As an industrial project for the arms industry, it could be even more open-ended than the Cold War.) We need a debate that confronts the danger of inflating a very real, but limited threat of terrorism into an open-ended global war, to be fought simultaneously on countless obscure battle fronts, large and small, visible and secret.

Major political leaders in both parties continue to buy into a view of US global supremacy--the "indispensable nation" scenario. They were silent when the Pentagon opened a new "Africa Command" to hunt down Islamists on that continent. Nor they did object when CIA gunships bombed villages earlier this year in Somalia. When Bush announced intentions to increase Army troop strength by 90,000, many Democrats boasted it was their idea first.

To what end? These new troops won't be available for Iraq. Are they for the next war or occupation? The delusion of military power is deeply rooted.

We would do better--both in addressing the danger of a wider sectarian war with failing regimes in the Middle East, and in combating terrorism--to reduce the heavy US military and geopolitical footprint in the region. That means withdrawing US forces from Iraq and organizing regional diplomacy, including with Iran and Syria, to contain the civil war from spreading. It would mean addressing the legitimate grievances of many in the Islamic world, especially Israel's occupation of the West Bank. And it would mean changing the conversation with the people of the Arab and Islamic worlds from the danger of extremism to the economic opportunity that peace and cooperation could bring.

A purposeful opposition must form to rethink America's role in the world. There are large and fateful questions to confront: What kind of country does the US want to be in the 21st century? Republic or Empire? Global leader or global cop? Where, as Sherle Schwenninger asked in the Nation's pages a few years ago, "is the America that is less one of warrior and preacher/proselytizer and more one of architect and builder?" How can America act like an imperial power in a post-imperial world? Much can be accomplished by focusing on the questions that conventional opinion ignores. And starting the discussion now can help establish new terms and limits for the next president elected in 2008.

Concretely, Congress should be pushed to take legislative action to renounce the Bush doctrine of "preventive war." As The Nation warned on the eve of the 2002 war resolution vote, "the decision to go to war has a significance that goes far beyond the war....It declares a policy of military supremacy over the entire earth-- an objective never attained by any power....The new policy [of preventive war] reverses a long American tradition of contempt for unprovoked attacks. It gives the United States the unrestricted right to attack nations even when it has not been attacked by them and is not about to be attacked by them...It accords the US the right to overthrow any regime--like the one in Iraq--it decided should be overthrown...It declares that the defense of the US and the world against nuclear proliferation is military force." Declaring the Bush doctrine of endless war defunct will not solve the problems posed by Iraq, but it will reduce the likelihood that we will see more Iraqs in our future.

With the 2008 elections upon us, it is unlikely that the Democrats (with a few honorable exceptions) will rethink their official national security strategy in any significant way. But citizens committed to a vision of real security can launch a debate framed by our own concerns and values. If we have learned anything in the past six years, it is that even overwhelming military power is ill suited to dealing with the central challenges of the 21st century: climate crisis, the worst pandemic in human history (AIDS), the spread of weapons of mass destruction, stateless terrorists with global reach, genocidal conflict and starvation afflicting Africa, and a global economy that is generating greater instability and inequality.

A real security plan would widen the definition of security to include all threats to human life, whether they stem from terrorism, disease, environmental degradation, natural disasters or global poverty--a definition that makes it clear that the military is only one of many tools that can be used to address urgent threats. A last resort. This alternative security strategy would also reconfigure the US presence in the world -- reducing the footprint of American military power, pulling back the forward deployments drastically and reducing the bloated Pentagon budget by as much as half.

Yes, at home, all this will take time and will have to overcome the fiercest kind of political resistance. Yet this is not an impossible political goal, now that Americans have seen where the military option leads. Dealing intelligently with reality is not retreat. It is the first wise step toward restoring genuine national security.

The "Draft Gore" Moment

Al Gore may well win a Nobel Peace Prize this week, which is no small accomplishment. But the more relentless of the former vice president's political proponents are saying, "Why stop with an trophy when can have it all?"

After all, the "Draft Gore" movement suggests, it is not that great a leap from the awards stage in Stockholm to the presidential campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The peace prize winner -- or winners, if deserving Canadian Inuit environmentalist Sheila Watt-Cloutier shares the honor with Gore -- will be announced on Friday.

Then there will be headlines, broadcast reports, interviews with Gore about his Global Marshall Plan to address climate change, and the inevitable flurry of speculation about whether it wouldn't make more sense for Democrats to nominate an internationally acclaimed thinker and activist than a cautious-and-calculating former First Lady or a cautious-but-somewhat-more-inspiring junior senator from Illinois.

Conveniently, the speculation would probably reach a crescendo around the time of the November 2 deadline for entering the New Hampshire primary competition. Imagine the drama of days prior to that deadline, as America awaits the decision of a former congressman, senator, vice president and Democratic presidential nominee to enter the race for an office that -- had only the American political process been structured to accept the popular will of the people rather than the determination of an archaic and undemocratic Electoral College and its Supreme Court manipulators -- he should have held for the past eight years.

"We feel that if he wins the Nobel Prize... then he can't not run for president," chirps Roy Gayhart, a California "Draft Gore" organizer.

Perhaps. But, just in case the reluctant runner needs a push, his line coaches are yelling at the top of their lungs, "Run Al Run."

The crusading campaigners of a "Draft Gore" movement that is decidedly better organized and focused than at least a few of the declared Democratic presidential campaigns operate a sharp website at Draft Gore.com have active organizations in a number of states and are now capitalizing with some skill on the Nobel moment.

On Wednesday in the front section of the New York Times--the town square of American political discourse--is a full-page advertisement featuring a particularly trim and youthful image of the former vice president presented as "An Open Letter to Al Gore."

"You say you have fallen out of love with politics, and you have every reason to feel that way," the letter from the Draft Gore campaigners suggests. "But we know you have not fallen out of love with your country. And your country needs you now--as do your party and the planet you are fighting to save."

Suggesting that Gore must be president if he wants to tackle global warming, the letter prods him, "Only from the Oval Office can you wield the kind of influence needed to move countries, policies and corporations to bring about meaningful change."

The Draft Gore movement, which is seeking petition signatures urging their man to run, is hitting the former vice president where it counts. It is certainly true that the presidency would afford Gore an unrivaled opportunity to realize what for him are moral imperatives. And it is also true that the presidency is within his grasp.

The New York Times advertisement follows radio advertising in Iowa and Florida, as well as an ambitious "op-ed" campaign by Gore proponents such as Ben Barber. Already, Gore backers in Michigan are busy gathering the 12,396 signatures that must be obtained by October 23 to qualify their man for a place on the primary ballot in a state where an August poll by the Detroit News had Gore accomplishing what Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Clinton and the other Democratic contenders have not been able to do: leading Hillary Clinton.

Mitt Romney Goes All Alberto Gonzales on the Constitution

Call it the Alberto Gonzales approach to the system of checks and balances.

Asked whether he would obey the Constitution and consult Congress before sending US troops into combat, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney says he would consult his lawyers first.

Just as President Bush turned to Gonzales for legal opinions that the disgraced former White House counsel and Attorney General wrote with the purpose of absolving the commander-in-chief of any duty to uphold the Constitution, so Romney says that he would take his cue from contemporary counselors rather than the Founders of the American experiment.

The question in Tuesday's Republican presidential debate in Michigan came from MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who asked, "Governor Romney... if you were president of the United States, would you need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities?"

Romney responded, "You sit down with your attorneys and (they) tell you what you have to do. But obviously the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat. The president did that as he was planning on moving into Iraq and received the authorization of Congress..."

Matthews interjected: "Did (President Bush) need (a go-ahead from Congress)?"

"You know," Romney replied, "we're going to let the lawyers sort out what he needed to do and what he didn't need to do."

Most of the other GOP contenders paid at least a measure of lip service to Constitutional niceties, with Arizona Senator John McCain and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson displaying relative respect for the separation of powers while former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee adopted the mad-bomber line.

When all was said and done, however, only Texas Congressman Ron Paul actually challenged Romney's disregard of the essential document.

Matthews asked, "Congressman Paul, do you believe the President needs authorization of Congress to attack strategic targets in Iran, nuclear facilities?"

"Absolutely," said Paul, who in 2002 was one of six House Republicans to vote against authorizing Bush to attack Iraq. "This idea of going and talking to attorneys totally baffles me. Why don't we just open up the Constitution and read it? You're not allowed to go to war without a declaration of war."

Paul went on to dismiss the whole notion that Iran poses a threat to the US. "The thought that the Iranians could pose an imminent attack on the United States is preposterous. There's no way. This is just... war propaganda, continued war propaganda, preparing this nation to go to war and spread this war not only in Iraq, but into Iran, unconstitutionally. It is a road to disaster for us as a nation. It's a road to our financial disaster if we don't read the Constitution once in a while."

Later, Paul would attempt to explain to Rudy Giuliani that the September 11, 2001, attacks were carried out by terrorists, rather than a foreign government. When the former New York mayor again attempted to use the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as justification for preemptive attacks on sovereign states, Paul explained with regard to September 11: "That was no country. That was 19 thugs. That had nothing to do with a country."

Giuliani wasn't having any of it. "So imminent attack is a possibility, and we should be ready for it," the Republican front runner ranted, before declaring that "we have to be willing to use a military option" against Iran.

That dust-up may explain one of the more intriguing exchanges of Tuesday night's debate.

"Congressman Paul," moderator Matthews asked, "do you promise to support the nominee of the Republican Party next year?"

"Not right now I don't," Paul replied. "Not unless they're willing to end the war and bring our troops home. And not unless they are willing to look at the excess in spending. No, I'm not going to support them if they continue down the path that has taken our party down the tubes."

Dems Fail Litmus Test

The Washington Post reported today that Sen. Harry Reid has informed private-equity funds that the Senate will not be closing the obscenely inequitable tax loophole that allows mega-billionaires to be taxed at 15 percent – lower than most working Americans. Harry says there simply isn't time in the busy Senate schedule. Seriously. And the Post points out that if there isn't time in 2007, there almost certainly won't be in 2008 either – "Congress tends to be leery of tax increases in election years."

I'm sure this has nothing whatsoever to do with the private-equity firms and hedge funders putting "more than 20 lobbying firms" to work for them in the Halls of Congress. Nor is Reid's about face a sign of the Wall Street Execs "increasing their campaign donations to members of Congress." It's simply a jam-packed schedule – who has time to address the shafting of revenues for public infrastructure investment? Rebuilding the shredded social contract? funding health care, education, or new sustainable energy programs? Making up for lost revenues due to insane Bush tax cuts?

As I posted previously, this was a litmus test for Democrats – to see whether the party > is capable of truly taking a stand for working people. They have failed it. Rick Perlstein blogged today of Democratic capitulations on this issue and FISA.

Ari Berman noted that Barack Obama – and kudos to him – wasted no time in calling out this bad decision. Within hours, John Edwards had done the same, saying in a released statement, "Incredibly, for an investment of about $6 million dollars in lobbying fees – and another $6 million in political contributions – these elite Wall Street traders preserved a $6 billion tax break for themselves…. We have to end the rigged system in Washington that rewards big corporate interests at the expense of hard-working families."

Certainly Sen. Bernie Sanders gets it. The longtime fighter for a fairer and more decent America told me: "At a time when poverty is increasing, the middle class is shrinking and the distribution of wealth and income is more unequal than at any time since the 1920s, it is imperative that Congress initiate progressive tax reform which asks the rich and large corporations to start paying their fair share of taxes. This tax reform should certainly include raising the tax rate on private-equity firms and hedge funds from the current 15 percent... The American people want us to move this country in a new direction, and progressive tax reform is central to that effort." And Sen. Sherrod Brown is sticking to his principles on this issue too, telling me, "The income tax system should be the same for the trucker from Greenwich, Ohio, making 20 dollars an hour as for the hedge fund manager from Greenwich, Connecticut, making 20 million dollars a year. Carried interest is compensation for managing other people's money, pure and simple. I believe it should be taxed accordingly."

Here's hoping that more Democrats rediscover their spines and tell Harry Reid he's way off on this. Along with the promise to end the war, telling working Americans that they would stand up for them is the reason Dems are in the majority.

Medals and Ribbons Everywhere and Not a Victory in Sight

When, in mid-September, General David Petraeus testified before Congress on "progress" in Iraq, he appeared in full dress uniform with quite a stunning chestful of medals. The general is undoubtedly a tough bird. He was shot in the chest during a training-exercise accident and later broke his pelvis in a civilian skydiving landing, but until he went to Iraq in 2003, he had not been to war. In the wake of his testimony, the New York Times tried to offer an explanation for the provenance of at least some of those intimidating medals and ribbons -- including the United Nations Medal (for participants in joint UN operations), the National Defense Service Medal (for those serving during a declared national emergency, including 9/11) and the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (for… well, you know…). Petraeus is not alone. Here, for instance, is former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Peter Pace, a combat Marine in Vietnam, with one dazzling chestful of medals and another of ribbons.

Medal and ribbon escalation has been long on the rise in the US military. Here, for instance, was General William Westmoreland, who commanded US forces in Vietnam, sporting his chestful back in that distant era. But the strange thing is: As you continue heading back in time, as, in fact, U.S. generals become more successful, those ribbons and medals shrink -- and not because the men weren't highly decorated either. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who oversaw World War II on the western front in Europe for the Allies seems, in his period of glory, to have chosen to wear between one and three rows. And General George C. Marshall, who oversaw all of World War II, after a distinguished career in the military, can be seen in photos wearing but three rows as well.

When it comes to ribbon display, in today's military the Marshall or Eisenhower equivalent would be Lynndie England, the infamous Abu Ghraib guard who was convicted by a military court in May 2005 for her abusive acts at that prison. By then, she had served four years in the Army Reserves and, as a photo just after her conviction indicates, she could already sport three rows of ribbons.

It's hard to believe that there isn't a correlation here--that, in fact, there isn't a comparison to be made. For all the world, when I saw Petraeus on display before Congress, I thought of the full-dress look of Soviet generals, not to say the Soviet Union's leader Leonid Brezhnev, back in the sclerotic 1980s when, ambushed in Afghanistan, they were on the way down. Like the USSR then, the US, only a few years back hailed as the planet's New Rome, has the look of a superpower in distress--and it's hard to believe that generals with such chests full of medals, whether in the former USSR or the present USA, have the kind of perspective that actually leads to winning wars -- or to assessing a losing war correctly.

Consider what a retired Air Force officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, has to say on the subject: "Those medals and militaria that our commanders wear are a kind of evidence. Our military, they indicate, is so busy patting itself on the back that its medal-bestowing has come to resemble those Little League tournaments where every kid gets a trophy, win or lose. We're so busy celebrating how great we are that we're failing to face reality. Not all problems can be solved by applying more elbow grease and shouting ‘Hooah.'"

Not all problems can be solved… but in the meantime, it's sure a hell of a great look.

How Many Times Can a Country Lose its Innocence?

I've been thinking recently about the many ways in which we conceal from ourselves the truths we know we know. At the Shocked, Shocked conference at NYU on Saturday -- the subhead of which was the comical/exasperated "Just how many times can a country lose its innocence?" -- the Yale historian David Blight gave a riveting talk about how over the second half of the 19th century the Civil War became memorialized as a conflict between "two right sides " -- Union and Confederate-- and "reconciliation" came to mean focussing exclusively on the valor of the soldiers in both armies. Slavery? Black people? Neither fit the narrative of reuniting North and South. For that, the causes and purposes of the war had to be obscured, the past -- the real past -- forgotten. The slaveowner and the slave dropped out of the public story, the soldiers in blue and gray became the star players. In this way, the country could bind up its wounds and move on triumphantly without having to confront the reconstitution of white supremacy in the South, or Northern racism either. Napoleon quipped that the winners write history, but until the civil rights movement, the history of the Civil War was largely written by the South.

Blight gave an interesting example of how the wish for a heroic, positive history distorts "progressive"memory too. Ken Burns ended his PBS series on the Civil War with footage of the huge 1913 reunion at Gettysburg of veterans from both sides, closing on a conciliatory meeting between an old black union soldier and a white confederate one. According to Blight, this picture had to have come from a much later vets reunion. In 1913, all the vets were white. The only blacks permitted in the encampment were the ones who built and maintained the latrines, cooked and served food, and handed out blankets.

You can see the same process of historical mythmaking at work on the War in Vietnam. The war as well-intentioned tragedy (liberal version) versus the war as sabotaged glory, the stab in the back (conservative). The history of militant GI resistance, told in the powerful documentary "Sir! No Sir!", has dropped out of public memory, replaced by feckless "draft dodgers" and the myth of the returning soldier spat upon in the airport by a hippie girl with flowers in her hair.

How will the War in Iraq be woven into the ongoing narrative of American goodness and progress? We brought them democracy, but they couldn't handle freedom? We could have pacified the country with just a bit more time but the peaceniks stabbed us in the back, just like in Vietnam? Maybe both--in fact, both are in circulation already. You can be sure that, as with Vietnam, no matter how many Abu Ghraibs and Hadithas come to light, they will be blamed on bad-apple soldiers and the fog of war, not higher ups or official policy.

Imagine that in 30 years the Smithsonian tries to put on an exhibit exploring the the Iraq war: the cooked evidence of WMD, the "embedding" of the media, our bewildering and shifting alliances with assorted Iraqi would-be strongmen, the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure, the violence against civilians, the displacement of millions of Iraqis to Syria and Jordan, and so on. Today , these are all things we know well. But will we still know them in 30 years? If history is any guide, they'll have been replaced by a soothing and hopeful popular narrative of patriotism , military valor and well-meaning blunders. In the furor over the planned exhibit, many rightwing politicians will raise tons of cash, the curator will lose her job, and in the end the more disturbing, 'controversial" displays will be replaced with pictures of Osama bin Laden, 9/11, soldiers building schools and soulful-eyed Iraqi children being brought to America for medical treatment.

Blight closed with a wonderful remark from the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth, the great civil-rights leader: "If you don't tell it like it really was, it can never be as it ought to be." That goes for all of us.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Katha Pollitt's collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, is just out from Random House. These are not Nation columns; in fact, most are previously unpublished. "Watching Pollitt level her incisive wit at targets as disparate as Marxism and motherhood makes "Learning to Drive" a rewarding and entertaining read."--San Francisco Chronicle

For upcoming readings and appearances, click here.

Moscow Remembers Politkovskaya

Heidi Hoogerbeets, a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, traveled to Moscow last week to participate in memorial events for the courageous Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Heidi's vivid dispatch from Moscow is a reminder that Politkovskaya's work and human rights advocacy remains alive in Russian journalistic and political life.


Anna Politkovskaya's Memory Cannot Be Extinguished
Heidi Hoogerbeets

MOSCOW, Russia, October 7, 2007 -- One year ago today, Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in a contract-style killing near the elevator of her Moscow apartment. Today, Muscovites had the opportunity to pay homage to this dynamic Russian journalist, who felt a moral duty to illuminate the truth behind the Russian government's agenda in the Chechen war.

Though Politkovskaya's death had profound international resonance, there has been relatively little reaction inside Putin's Russia. Nonetheless, a handful of Russian citizens continue to campaign against impunity and to fight the crackdown on press freedom that has plagued Russia. Their determination echoed throughout the day's events commemorating the first anniversary of her death.

Approximately 2,000 people gathered under a gray sky at Pushkin Square for a dissident rally in Politkovskaya's honor. An excessive amount of Police lined the square. The rally was peaceful, and no problems were reported.

Apart from those who attended the rally, was a smaller crowd of Muscovites who preferred to separate Politkovskaya's death from Kremlin politics. Human rights activists and the journalist's family ardently expressed that speeches could present a platform to politicians who would exploit the opportunity to advance their own agendas.

Through the collective effort of local human rights activists and journalists, an outdoor photo exhibition in Politkovskaya's memory was held between 11am and 5pm on Bolotnaya Square. The exhibition featured works by outstanding photographers from England and Russia, who captured images of Beslan and Chechnya, places that were close to Politkovskaya's heart.

The personalities depicted in the exhibition are the heroic citizens of the North Caucasus who experienced the tragedy of war. The photographers captured children's faces revealing childhoods lost, their eyes showing a maturity beyond their years, and families devastated by war. Additionally, Novaya Gazeta and Amnesty International contributed pictures of Politkovskaya.

The organizing committee included representatives from the human rights center "Memorial," the "Civil Assistance Committee," "Glasnost Defense Foundation," "DEMOS" Center, "Coalition for Democratic Alternative Civil Service" (an anti-war organization), and Novaya Gazeta, where Politkovskaya worked.

Permission for the outdoor exhibition had been obtained from city officials. The required process to organize and carry out the commemorative activities for Politkovskaya in Moscow was a process which epitomized the complex state of Putin's Russia today. The process included the heavy involvement of government authorities each step of the way, including obtaining and carrying out all details regarding the events.

Alek Mnatsakanyan, one of the committee organizers, was bewildered by a police officer's reaction to hold the exhibition on October 7, the day of Politkovskaya's death. "The officer asked why we chose this particular day to hold the exhibition. I told him the day wasn't our choice, but the choice of those who killed Anna Politkovsaya," he said. "After all, October 7 is Putin's birthday, and it is as though the officer was suggesting that such an event would spoil the day for the president."

In the early afternoon, family, friends, and colleagues visited Troyekurovskoe cemetery to pay their respects to Politkovskaya in a small graveside service. Her grave was covered in a blanket of vibrant flowers glistening under the rainy sky.

Several people huddled tightly together under umbrellas, while reporters hastily circled the grave, snapping multiple pictures.

Novaya Gazeta's book, "For What," was placed by her colleagues beside a framed picture of Politkovskaya at the grave site. The large book was released last summer, and features Politkovskaya's articles and a collection of memories from those who knew her well.

Russian tradition commonly calls for wait of a year before relatives erect a monument at the grave site. Ilya Politkovsky, the journalist's son, says that the family is planning to put up a monument after the end of winter. "At the moment, we have different ideas for the monument. One thing is for sure, though: The monument will not be dark. Many people in Russia like to have dark monuments, but my mother was a bright person, and she loved bright colors." he said.

A crowd gathered outside Politkovskaya's apartment on Lesnaya Street for a silent vigil at 4pm, the time of her murder. On behalf of Garry Kasparov's "Other Russia," a plaque was placed above the apartment building's mailbox, saying, "Anna Politkovskaya lived here and was maliciously killed on October 7, 2006."

In the evening, Politkovskaya's car was parked outside Novaya Gazeta for passers-by to observe. Red and white roses adorned the windows. Beside the car, was a life-size poster of her getting into the driver's seat with a charismatic smile on her face.

Today the halls of Novaya Gazeta are abuzz with talk of deadlines, as work in one of the few remaining independent papers in Russia continues. It is impossible to pass room 307, Politkovskaya's old office, without stopping by for a few moments of reflection.Though subtle changes were made in the office since October 2006, there are still plenty of visual reminders of Politkovskaya. Flowers and pictures of her sit on her old desk, and her books, awards, and greeting cards still line the window sill that divides her work space from the neighboring office. The office seems frozen in a time vacuum, free from the ever-present traces of cigarette smoke that characteristically permeate Russian work spaces.

Last Monday's issue of Novaya Gazeta featured Politkovskaya's old telephone number on the front page. A heartrending picture of her on the phone, her eyes energetic, lips showing a sincere smile, took up half the page. In anticipation of the October 7 anniversary, her old telephone number was reactivated for a week, so that people could voice their opinions about their lives, politics, and of course, about Politkovskaya.

Remembering Politkovskaya, Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta's Editor-in Chief, said that she was no ordinary reporter who simply reported on Chechnya. After writing about the people she interviewed, she went back to help them any way she could.

"At Anya's request, people regularly brought books, clothing, pampers, and food products – right here, to Novaya Gazeta," Muratov said, tapping his desk for emphasis. "Then all these things were sent to people who lost their homes in Chechnya."

Aware of the danger awaiting Politkovskaya, Muratov constantly tried to convince her to write about other things. "I told her that there are other countries and other themes she can write about," he said. "But it was impossible to argue with her. And Anna did have a very strong point. People had nowhere else to go – Moscow wouldn't help them, and Kadirov wouldn't help them." Indeed, Politkovskaya never abandoned war victims who had no voice of their own, and nowhere else to turn.

"The last time Anya went to Chechnya, it was without my permission, when I was on vacation. I saved a text message she sent me," Muratov said, his eyes reflecting a blend of pride and sadness.

Muratov reached across his desk for his cell phone, and displayed her final rebellious message: "I am in Chechnya. Call if you need anything."

Politkovskaya is remembered not only as a courageous journalist and citizen who cared deeply about the fate of her country, but also as a devoted mother.

Ilya Politkovsaky said that on the anniversary of his mother's death, the family would visit his mother's grave early in the morning and then have their own quiet gathering.

"For me she is not a diplomat or war correspondent. She's just my mother," Politkovsky said. "My sister and I agreed with my mother's political position about the situation in Russia and in Chechnya, and we understood why she was going on with her work, but we couldn't accept it. We never wanted our mother to be the one writing about those things."

How would Ilya Politkovsky like his mother to be remembered? Politkovsky contemplatively sipped some tea before giving an answer. "I would like for my mother's articles to continue to be read and published, and for people to truly understand that she was an outstanding investigative journalist, not only for Chechnya, but for Russia. I want her to be a paragon in the world of investigative journalism," he finally said.

And she is.

She was virtually alone in the campaign to reveal the grotesque civilian casualties and the ruthless abuse of Russian soldiers by senior officers during the Chechen War.

Viacheslav Ismailov, Politkovskaya's close colleague at Novaya Gazeta, said she was a voice for those families who were abandoned by the justice system designed to protect them. "No journalist, either in Russia or abroad, dedicated so much time to recording specific cases of kidnappings, disappearances and torture. This set her apart from other journalists," Ismailov said. "Anna felt that no one understood her. And many people didn't – even her colleagues here at Novaya Gazeta."

The unpopular and controversial topic of Chechnya contributed to sense of isolation. Many Russians displayed indifference toward the Second Chechen war to which she devoted her pen. Nevertheless, Politkovskaya fought to enlighten a misinformed Russian audience, whose priority lay in securing newfound personal economic prosperity.

Perhaps it will take the life of Anna Politkovskaya to demonstrate to Vladimir Putin and the rest of the world that, in order for a great power to survive and prosper in the world, recognition and respect for human rights and freedoms are requirements for all democratic societies.

Politkovskaya's words continue to haunt the authorities she challenged. Her daring articles showcased the country's systematic disregard for human rights and the evaporation of the most basic tenets of modern democratic societies – freedom of speech and a sound, independent legal system. She unmasked the cruel reality of the Chechen wars, raising chilling questions that could no longer be ignored in Russia, or abroad.

And today was a peaceful reminder that even after her death, Anna Politkovskaya remains alive, transcending cultural boundaries throughout the world, serving as a symbol of the emergence of the truth embodied in journalism.