I’ve been in New York a week now, watching the city prepare for the Republican National Convention and the accompanying protests. Much is predictable: tabloid hysteria about an anarchist siege; cops showing off their new crowd-control toys; fierce debates about whether the demonstrations will hurt the Republicans or inadvertently help them.
What surprises me is what isn’t here: Najaf. It’s nowhere to be found. Every day, US bombs and tanks move closer to the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, reportedly damaging outer walls and sending shrapnel flying into the courtyard; every day, children are killed in their homes as US soldiers inflict collective punishment on the holy city; every day, more bodies are disturbed as US Marines stomp through the Valley of Peace cemetery, their boots slipping into graves as they use tombstones for cover.
Sure, the fighting in Najaf makes the news, but not in any way connected to the election. Instead it’s relegated to the status of a faraway intractable ethnic conflict, like Afghanistan, Sudan or Palestine. Even within the antiwar movement, the events in Najaf are barely visible. The “handover” has worked: Iraq is becoming somebody else’s problem. It’s true that war is at the center of the election campaign–just not the one in Iraq. The talk is all of what happened on Swift Boats thirty-five years ago, not of the cannons being fired from US AC-130 gunships this week.
But while Vietnam has taken up far too much space in this campaign already, I find myself thinking about the words of Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien. In an interview for the 1980 documentary Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War, O’Brien said, “My time in Vietnam is a memory of ignorance and I mean utter ignorance. I didn’t know the language. I couldn’t communicate with the Vietnamese except in pidgin English. I knew nothing about the culture of Vietnam. I knew nothing about the religion, religions. I knew nothing about the village community. I knew nothing about the aims of the people, whether they were for the war or against the war…. No knowledge of what the enemy was after…. and I compensated for that ignorance in a whole bunch of ways, some evil ways. Blowing things up, burning huts as a frustration of being ignorant and not knowing where the enemy was.”
He could have been talking about Iraq today. When a foreign army invades a country about which it knows virtually nothing, there is plenty of deliberate brutality, but there is also the unintended barbarism of blind ignorance. It starts with cultural and religious slights: soldiers storming into a home without giving women a chance to cover their heads; army boots traipsing through mosques that have never been touched by the soles of shoes; a misunderstood hand signal at a checkpoint with deadly consequences.