March 19, 2003—George W. Bush announced the start of the war in Iraq with these words:
My fellow citizens. At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger. On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. . . We have no ambition in Iraq except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people. I know that the families of our military are praying that all those who serve will return safely and soon. . . We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail. May God bless our country and all who defend her.
Now with the drumbeat for another war, this time with Iran, those advocating military action have either forgotten quickly or learned little. Granted that Iran with nuclear weapons is a serious concern, war nevertheless should be the last step to dealing with the situation—not the first.
By late 2002, and even earlier, the Bush administration clearly was going to war, and just as clearly was trying to frighten the country into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I was heartened by worldwide protests during the winter of 2003, and here in Boston my wife and I stood on a sidewalk one day to watch a march by many thousands of people of all ages, creeds and colors united in the conviction that we should study war no more. But I was also dismayed by the certainty that the voices of millions around the world would change nothing.
By this time most will not note or even remember March 19 as the day the war started. Though the war has officially ended, the consequences remain with us and have lasting effects, which I wrote about in an earlier post, "Ending the War in Iraq: Questions for a Generation." The many casualties, the economic depression, the lost opportunities, the social discord and the partisan divide--they are all the legacy of this time.
A year after the invasion of Iraq, I sat down and started to write a novel, Bleeding in Babylon, the opening pages I post here on this sad ninth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War.
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From Bleeding in Babylon:
The war started today. Rain falls as the news repeats on my office radio. I adjust my collar, run my finger between it and my neck to relieve the chafing, cross myself and pray for those first victims along the banks of the Tigris. Artie. Artie. In the year since you died, through my grievous fault, Marybeth has come to me for solace and with her I find comfort as well, although I can't confess it. For weeks she has been watching the run up to this day and I wait for her to call me about Daniel's National Guard unit. Your son is too young to be sent halfway around the world, yet already we have seen the deployment of too many men and women his age.
If Daniel is mobilized, would my promise by your grave be broken? I can't watch over him in a war zone. From the windowsill I pick up that picture of the three of us, with baseball gloves, after a game of catch when Daniel was in grade school. Just the boys, said Marybeth as she pressed the shutter on her camera. I want to put that picture away, to store it in a box with other relics. But not yet. Even after all this time your last message remains on my answering machine. Har—har—har—you're laughing just like the old days—see you tonight for a beer.
In this season of Lent, the congregation gathers now for a sparsely attended evening Mass and afterward the Sacrament of Reconciliation. How warm and safe must they imagine themselves, huddling in the pews and gossiping with their neighbors. They have seen the bombardment on their television screens. How many others know someone marching off to war?
I wrap the amice about my shoulders. Now the alb; I pull it over my head, push my arms through the sleeves and thank our Lord for the strength He provides. The thought of kneeling before the altar, silent but for the rattle of cheap Valium beneath my vestments, makes me shudder; I take the vial from my pocket, untangle my rosary and hide the pills in my desk. I knot the cincture around my waist. It is too loose and I retie it. Over my shoulders I drape the stole, its fringes swishing. I pin the maniple to my sleeve then finally put on the chasuble.
Pacing around that uneven floor board, never repaired in all my years here, I am struck by a vision of the darkened church. Empty pews haunt me like a premonition—or a conclusion. Even the candles are out and God is blackness and void.
The telephone rings and makes me jump. I pick it up. From the sound of her breathing I know it's Marybeth.
“Do you have any news?”
“Nothing yet,” she says.
“I meant to call earlier.” What does Artie—I catch myself—why, since the accident, do I stumble like this? What would Artie do about Daniel?
“Thomas, I hate the telephone.”
On my wall calendar, black lines slash across the weeks and months. “It's been a long time.”
“It feels like yesterday . . .”
My arms and legs turn cold. For me it has been a year of tossing and turning in bed, of sleeping pills, of waking before dawn unable to exorcise my culpability. Yet, I have no choice but to hide it from Marybeth even as I ask her to help at the shelter.
"I'll come if Daniel doesn't need me."
"We start cleaning early, and we could use the help."
"I'll try. I promise."
I hang up the phone. Again the radio announcer—laser guided bombs are pulverizing cities in our campaign of shock and awe.
Someone knocks on my door. Opening it, I see Benjamin, still our pastor though slower for age, hunched like he was that day he first guided me to this office, his cane tapping one knee with each step through the rectory.
“Thomas, you have much on your mind. I can see it.” Benjamin raises a finger to my forehead.
“This isn’t an ordinary day.”
“No, it is not. Tonight you should speak of it.”
“I'm not ready.” I want to yield the service to Benjamin. He speaks clearly and with faith; he knows how to reassure people seeking divine guidance.
“What is wrong?”
“This isn't a good time.”
“Thomas, we all have our duties. Please do yours.”
“Forgive me.” I close the curtains to shut out the drizzle.
“You are a pup. It is time to go.”
During the sermon I ask for attention and talk of war and rumors of war. “We cannot let this conflagration become a conflict between faiths. Does Islam not mean peace in submission to God? Was Christ not born Prince of Peace?" A watery light filters through stained glass windows portraying His life and agony. The face of Christ shines like amber. The storm behind Calvary churns in a ruby sky.
One man arrives late. He takes off his coat, runs fingers through wet hair plastered to his temples and finds a seat in back. In the first pew a woman clasps her hands so tightly that the knuckles are white. She has the bright flush of rouge on her cheeks. Her husband, eating a cracker surreptitously, brushes crumbs from his lips and looks up at me. Two daughters squirm next to them. Such innocents, thumping their shoes against the kneeler. We cannot question the ultimate mystery of God's design. If it is His wish then we must follow, although our free will allows us to stray. Yet, again and again I return to that last night with Artie, while outside I hear only the murmur of chill winter rain.
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(c) copyright 2012 by HL Lee, The Fleeting World