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An American POW in the US War on Iraq

3 March 2002

The first time I went to Iraq in 1997, bringing medicine to children in hospitals, I wasn't prepared for the psychological impact of being on the front lines of a war. Madeleine Albright had clearly spelled out who the combatants were, the 500,000 children whose deaths were, "a difficult choice but worth the price." I hadn't read the Defense Intelligence Agency report which laid out the intent to unleash biological warfare on the civilian population by laying waste to Iraq's supply of clean drinking water. Yet there it was in front of me, bed after bed full of miniature, gasping soldiers whom I'm sure had no idea that they had even been drafted.

I returned to Baghdad a year later with even more medicine, desperate to make an impact, completely unaware that here, deep behind "enemy lines", I was in mortal danger. Then it happened without my even knowing - the Iraqi people captured my heart and it was clear that my life would never be the same.

Maybe it was the woman feeding her hydrocephalic baby who was too weak to nurse, with a spoonful of milk taken ever so gently from a breast that would wither prematurely from disuse. Perhaps it was the hotel owner who informed me that we Americans had it all wrong, and when we had wrung the last drop of oil out of their country, we would have missed the true Iraq that he loved - the rivers, the citrus and date groves, the music and poetry, the history, the magnificent architecture, the lovely people.

It could have been the shoe shine boys Rami and Kareem, smiles flashing, amused by the old American trying to keep up with them in a spirited game of street soccer. Most likely it was Mustafa, sitting on my lap, flashing a peace sign with the three fingers he has left -the other two lost to the missile that killed his brother as they played in front of their house, a missile fired by a US fighter pilot retaliating for an alleged Iraqi violation of the southern no fly zone.

In the end I guess it doesn't matter how it happened - I was a prisoner, taken by surprise, and there was no way to escape. It only stands to reason then, that in the aftermath of September 11, with every indication that Iraq is facing another massive attack from the United States, we would race back to Baghdad to stand with our friends, desperate to prevent what is seeming more and more inevitable - the annihilation of the Cradle of Civilization.

As we were finishing breakfast in our hotel one cold, January morning, the report came in that John McCain, on a tour of the Persian Gulf, was rallying troops on an aircraft carrier with the cry, "Next stop, Baghdad!" That afternoon we visited a fire station to tell them of the heroism of their colleagues in New York City and to ask how they decided who to rescue and which fire to put out when their entire city was under attack. Their thoughtful responses made McCain's rantings reek of madness.

We flew on Iraqi Airways through the no fly zone down to Basra, the legendary port city of Sinbad, to visit friends. Basra stopped being a port years ago, ravaged by bombs because of its proximity to Iran during those eight years of war, as well as being across the border from Kuwait during the Gulf War. Here in the Venice of the Middle East, named for the canals that run through the heart of the city, the electricity still goes out up to eighteen hours a day and sewage ponds straddle neighborhoods, the deadly brew just waiting to infect cuts on barefoot children who play by them because that's what children do.

One of our most touching encounters was the afternoon spent with Harbi Jawair, the farmer whose thirteen year old son Omran was killed, again by bombs dropped by US pilots, as he was keeping the family's sheep out of wheat that was being planted nearby that fateful spring morning. We had previously received from Mr. Harbi the only photograph the family had of Omran - which we used in an educational bus tour back in the United States that traveled 20,000 miles and stopped at two hundred campuses all across the country. As I showed him how we had used the picture on posters and leaflets, in newspapers, and even mounted to the side of the bus, he and I wept together -two farmers, both fathers of sons who should still be the same age.

So how is it that after being bombed for forty-two days with more ordinance than was dropped by the United States and its allies during all of World War II; eleven years of the most crippling sanctions ever imposed on a modern nation; hundreds of thousands of children killed prematurely from completely preventable circumstances; hundreds of additional deaths from the longest sustained bombing campaign that the United States has been involved in since World War II; and the very real prospect that the worst is yet to come; that Americans would still be welcomed to Iraq like long lost relatives coming home?

This for me has become the burning question. The best I can come up with, is that while there are extremists with a variety of political, religious, economic, ethnic, and cultural agendas trying to assert themselves in a world of diminishing resources and moral disintegration, most of the rest of us are basically decent, loving people. In fact, there are six billion of the rest of us who want nothing more than to live in modest comfort with safety for our children and a balance between individual freedom and our collective, societal responsibilities.

From the isolation of my imprisonment, caught between the growing affection I have for my Iraqi friends and an American administration that is bent on destroying them in order to save them, I find myself becoming almost delusional with visions of how this can be stopped. Dwight Eisenhower said, one day the people of the world are going to want peace so badly that governments are going to have to get out of the way and let them have it. What would this look like were it to actually happen?

Maybe it starts with Bono, an Iraqi flag stitched inside his leather jacket, singing in the soccer stadium in Baghdad while the names of those killed in the Amiriya bomb shelter are flashed on a screen behind him. The stadium is filled with thousands, no, millions of people of good will inspired by the Olympic spirit of peace and camaraderie. Children -Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Kurdish, Arab, European, American -pass a lantern from hand to hand as they sing, "we are the world, we are the children." CNN cameras pan the crowds showing signs that read, "You can't call people collateral damage" and "Our grief is not a cry for war." And then, and then...

Where it goes from there is up to the rest of us, the six billion who don't want to go down the road that a few hundred thousand or even a million extremists want to take us. Anthropologist Margaret Mead exhorted, " that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed it's the only thing that ever has." Hijackers and generals have had their day. Can the rest of us somehow turn our dreams for peace through justice into deeds?

Mike Miles
Published by Common Dreams © Mike Miles

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