A number of antiwar activists have been turning from preoccupation with particular injustices to trying to see some overall reason why humanity can't seem to straighten itself out. This isn't to excuse the head-of-state criminals who should be brought to book for things like the US-engineered invasion of Iraq; but with an increasing recognition that the juggernaut rolls on pretty much despite our resistance, some activists are looking for evolutionary and ecological rather than immediately political explanations. The following essay is one of the best examples of this train of thought that ties a particular war to underlying and ongoing ecological destruction.

The essay was originally posted on Apr 20, 2008 to wtr-s, a list for U.S. war-tax refusers. If you reprint or otherwise distribute, please credit Dana Visalli. More on this topic will be found at Dana's Methow Naturalist pages.  

The Lessons of the Iraq War

Dana Visalli

I have just completed the second of two visits to the Kurdish area of Iraq this year. While there, I had the opportunity to observe economic and environmental conditions in northern Iraq and converse with Iraqi citizens, both Kurdish and Arab, about the impact of the on-going war and life in general.

The perception that dominates my senses is how worn both the land and the people are. Kurdistan happens to be one of the primary areas of the emergence of what we call civilization. The first archeological records for animal husbandry (goats, sheep and dogs) and agriculture (wheat and barley) appear in Kurdistan 11,000 years ago. The landscape, once covered with oak forests, is now almost completely deforested, except in the high mountains. Natural vegetation has largely been replaced by invasive, weedy species, some of which doubtless evolved in situ. The hills literally sag under the weight of the thousands of years of grazing, creased by innumerable ruminant feeding trails.

The people are sagging as well. I was impressed with what could be called the "conservation of motion" of the populace. The majority of people spend the day sitting-along sidewalks, on street corners, along roads, in their homes. This is due in part to a moribund economy-there is little work to be had-and it may also be due in part to an unhealthy diet (composed largely of meat and white bread) and depleted agricultural soils. It was commonplace for young people to tell me that there was no hope for a meaningful life for them in Kurdistan; most want to leave. One young man said that by 30 years of age Kurds lose all hope for a better life.

Like most civilized people, the Iraqis and Kurds are ecologically illiterate. The population of the country is growing rapidly, while all critical resources-water, food, energy, fertilizers-are depleting. Kurds love to go on picnics in the country, although they never venture more than 100 feet from the car. They will push accumulated plastic trash aside in a scenic picnic spot in order to spread a blanket and enjoy a meal, and then they add their refuse to the collection when they depart.

The niche of many women in Iraq is the role defined by conservative Islam, which is that of a slave class, subservient to the dominant male. In the smaller cities and towns women are rarely out on the streets, and when they are they are covered from head to toe with the all-concealing abaya, the full body cape. Women are typically quite overweight by about 30 years of age, and get little exercise, so that they walk with a stiff list from side to side that caused one western observer to compare them to penguins.

So-called honor killings can still occur in Kurdistan-in which a girl or woman is killed by a relative for spending even platonic time with an unapproved male-as does genital mutilation of females.

Many human behaviors have their corollary in the larger world of nature. All living organisms are protective of their own specific DNA in its recombined form as offspring, or children. There are innumerable behavioral options for assuring genetic fidelity of offspring in the natural world. Among insects these behaviors run the gamut from species of moths in which the female never develop wings and scarcely emerges from her pupal cocoon, to praying mantises, in which the females kill and eat the males after mating. The Islamic methodology follows the pattern of the flightless moth, keeping the female helpless and homebound.

I read several field reports written by an environmental group conducting habitat surveys in Iraq, and found passages such as the following commonplace: "The water pollution is evident to both the eye and nose; there is a strong stench arising from decomposing garbage and/or sewage...Fishing in the region is conducted both by electro-fishing and utilizing pesticide and other chemical toxins.. Dead fish were present during the survey, killed by toxic chemicals used in fishing. There are many villages in the area and the river is a major shipping channel, so there is pollution from oil and sewage...'

It is within this context of a time-weary and belief-burdened society that the recent wars in Iraq have taken place. These include the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war (fueled by 100 billion dollars of U.S. weapons sales, to both sides in the conflict), the 1991 Gulf War, the US-imposed economic sanctions on and bombing of Iraq from 1991-2003, and the current open-ended second Iraq War. These conflicts of course take a toll not only on people but on social infrastructure and on the earth as well. And so it is that in environmental field survey reports that I read there are passages such as "Site was visited in the summer of 2007, when the crew was shot at. The area was chemically bombed in the 1980s and there is evidence of destroyed homes in the valley..There are many mine fields in the area and there was heavy fighting here during the Iran-Iraq war..During the survey period the area faced occasional Iranian bombing."

The young people growing up in Iraq today have known war for most of their lives. Ranj, who is 28, tells of working in Baghdad in the early days of the current war. One hot day while driving to work with the window down there was an explosion nearby, and he found himself showered with human blood and bits of fingers and other human tissue. He had to return home and wash up. On another occasion-he was working as a translator for the U.S. military-he opened his front door to find a dead body laid neatly across the doorway. Fearing he might be implicated in the death he stuffed the body in his car and drove around for an hour with the putrefying corpse before he found a place to dump it. Taking the message left on his doorstep to heart, he fled to the north of the country.

Such experiences are commonplace for Iraqis. Mellich told me that she had a good friend killed in an explosion but that, "It's OK." I asked her why this was OK, and she responded that Iraqis have become used to death. "We used to say, when someone dies, 'We will remember you forever.' Now we say, they die in the morning, and we forget them in the afternoon."

Ibrahiem powerfully characterized the current state of affairs in Iraq in this way: "My father was a rebel against the government, and so he was killed by Saddam Hussein. I hate that man so much. But when I see what is happening in Iraq today, I realize it was better under Saddam."

Iraq was a broken society before the United States invaded in 2003. 13 years of sanctions had destroyed the economy of the country, while the U.S. bombing of water treatment plants and electrical power stations in the Gulf War led to disease and an increasing death rate, especially among children. Such was the state of Iraq when the U.S. attacked in March of 2003. The U.S. has to date spent $550 billion dollars on the current war, during which time an estimate one million Iraqis have been killed, and 4.5 million have been made into homeless war refugees. Clean drinking water and electricity have become vanishingly rare, malnutrition and unemployment are rampant, and sewage runs in the streets.

Taking in the larger sweep of history, it can be seen that the Iraqis have been destroying themselves by degrees for centuries through over-population and environmental degradation, and the U.S. has now shown up to finish the job. It is ironic that the debt the U.S. has incurred in the process of destroying Iraqi society, in combination with our own ecological illiteracy, now promises to cause a breakdown of this country as well.

What becomes clear from this litany of sorrow is that human society is insane. This is a disturbing realization, but it is a helpful clarification. If you see it, it is good to let in sink in for a minute: we are insane.

What to do? We have arisen from a dynamic and evolving universe. Really: initially there were only hydrogen atoms, and from that simple beginning all the beauty, complexity and confusion of the world has arisen. Human life is not about nothing, it is about something, we are a infinitesimally small molecular slice of the universe expressing itself in new and creative ways - that's what the universe does, it experiments. Obviously something new is trying to emerge in the human species, something is struggling to be liberated from the biological imperatives of the genes.

Are you going to realize that your authentic primary relationship is one-to-one with the living earth, or are you going to continue to try to please the judge, the outside authority, your self-image, your father, the so-called government? Are you going to participate in the very simple, basic ecological reality that we live on a finite planet where all matter cycles (while energy flows through from the sun), and there is no such thing as waste? If you are you will want to compost the byproducts of your bodies metabolism-your excrement, your greatest gift to the biosphere, the real fruit of your life's work. This is how to stop the war, this is how to help the exhausted land and people of the Cradle of Civilization. If you don't want to participate in the revolution then stop pretending you do. If you do want to participate, then now is the hour and this is the moment.

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