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When Compassion Becomes Dissent

On the post-9/11 struggle to teach creative writing while awaiting the further annihilation of Iraq

by David James Duncan

Published in the January/February 2003 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph by Tim Page/Corbis, used with permission

1.I HAVE BEEN SERVING MY COUNTRY, this deceptively serene Rocky Mountain autumn, as a visiting instructor of creative writing at the University of Montana. I lead two classes, each three hours long, with twenty students all told. My students are not “aspiring writers” exactly: they’re the real thing, and in two months time their collective intensity, wit, and talent have lifted our joint undertaking into the realm of arduous but steady pleasure. Yet as the semester unfolds and we listen to President Bush and his various goaders and backers wage a rhetorical war on Iraq and prepare an increasingly vague national “we” to lay waste to Saddam Hussein, the mere teaching of creative writing has come to feel, for the first time in my life, like a positively dissident line of work.

Creative writing requires a dual love of language and of life, human and otherwise. The storyteller then sculpts these raw loves with acute observation, reflection, creative struggle, allegiance to truth, merciless awareness of the foibles of human beings, and unstinting empathy toward human beings even so. Not only have these strategies foundered in the post-9/11 rhetoric of the Bush administration, they look to me to have been outlawed by two recent federal documents: the “2002 National Security Strategy for the United States” and the 107th Congress’s “Patriot Act.”

Had I been invited to proofread these puffed-up rhetorical works with the same critical eye I am paid to apply to student rough drafts, I’d have been forced to tell their authors that they had composed two half-truth-telling, hypocrisy-laden pieces of sociopathic cant and that they should throw them away and start over. Both works redefine Earth as a heavenly body whose countries and cultures the Bush administration and Congress were appointed to judge and police. Both are based on the belief that opposing Bush rhetoric is traitorous, that spying on neighbors and friends is patriotic, that fighting for our personal freedom “obstructs enhanced surveillance procedures,” that manufacturing and exporting weapons of destruction are our greatest protection against weapons of destruction, that terrorizing the citizens of other nations is the greatest safeguard against terrorist acts against our own nation, that biological health, a sustainable natural economy, and the conservation of ecosystems are beneath consideration in this time of red-white-and-blue crisis, and that a daily life of compassion and self-examination is the na├»ve position of sentimentalists and weaklings.

In such an America the teaching of creative writing is one of countless professions that has been inadvertently redefined as dissident. This puts me in an odd position. Having signed a contract to teach before Bush/Cheney/Powell’s “New America” existed, and knowing only the former America’s literary methods, I’m left no choice but to instruct my students in how to become what the new national lexicon might call “better unAmericans.”

2.
ANOTHER EXAMPLE of how the New America forces literature into a dissident position is Bush’s presumption (stated in the National Security Strategy, page 5) that it is the New America’s “clear responsibility to history” to “rid the world of evil.” As a lifelong student of the world’s wisdom literature, it is my duty to inform students that “ridding the world of evil” is a goal very different from any recommended by Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad, though not so different from some recommended by the Josephs Stalin and McCarthy and by Mao Tse Tung. In wisdom literature the principal evil to be attacked by the person of faith is the evil in oneself, and a secondary evil to be opposed is the power of anyone who victimizes the weak. The National Security Strategy, on the other hand, is a call for unquestioning obedience to and financial support of the Bush administration’s desire to commit our bodies, minds, ravaged ecosystems, work force, and soldiers to an unspecified series of international bullying actions. Regardless of what we think of this as “patriots,” those of us who maintain a politically unfashionable love for the world’s scriptures can’t help but notice that this document is a hell of a step down in the canon of literature by which people of faith direct their lives.

Another bone I must pick with Bush’s aim to “rid the world of evil” is with its authorship. As a novelist, I daily concoct speeches destined to emerge from the mouths of fictitious characters. This practice compels me to point out that, every time he speaks formally (which is to say, reads), the president is less himself than a fictitious construct pretending to think thoughts placed in his mouth by others. Thus we see, for example, Bush confusing the words “region” and “regime” as he stands before the U.N. pretending to think thoughts that necessitate war. I’m not making fun of these stumbles. It must be hard to enunciate or understand a daily stream of words you have not written, creatively struggled with, or reflected upon prior to pretending, with all the world watching, to think them. The good thing about this lack of authenticity is that Bush may not be such as fool as to believe he can “rid the world of evil”; the horrific thing about it is that our military might and foreign policy are being deployed as if he can. This massive pretense does not imply that Bush is a liar. It implies, far more seriously, that the U.S. presidency itself has become a pretense, hence a lie.

This brings me back to the impossibility of teaching creative writing under the pretentious new National Security Strategy without seeming dissident. As a voluntary professional fiction writer and involuntary amateur liar, I’m here to tell you that fiction-making and lying are two different things. To write War and Peace required imaginative effort. To embezzle money from a bank does, too. It should not be necessary to explain even to Jesse Helms that this does not make Tolstoy a bank robber. War and Peace is an imaginative invention but also, from beginning to end, a truth-telling and a gift-giving. We know before reading a sentence that Tolstoy “made it all up,” but this making is as altruistic and disciplined as the engineering of a cathedral. It uses mastery of language, spectacular acts of empathy, and meticulous insight into a web of individuals and a world to present a man’s vast, haunted love for his Russian people. And we as readers get to recreate this love in ourselves. We get to reenter the cathedral.

A lie is also an imaginative invention, but only on the part of the liar. In hearing a lie we can’t share in its creativity. Only the liar knows he’s lying. The only “gift” a lie therefore gives anyone is belief in something that doesn’t exist. This is the cruelty of all lies. There is no corresponding cruelty in fiction. To lie is to place upon the tongue, page, or television screen words designed to suppress or distort the truth, usually for the sake of some self-serving agenda.

I fear that the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq must be attacked, defeated, and occupied for America’s domestic safety is just such a distortion, and that its chief aim is the embezzlement not of cash but of Iraq’s oil reserves—the third largest on Earth. I hope to heaven I’m wrong, but the $73 million Dick Cheney’s cohorts at Halliburton have in recent years invested in oil infrastructure in Iraq despite the presence of Saddam casts a hell of a shadow over my hope, as do the words of Senator Richard Lugar (R., Indiana) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who during the July/August 2002 hearings on Iraq said, “We are going to run the oil business, we are going to run it well, we are going to make money, and it’s going to help pay for the rehabilitation of Iraq because there is money there!”

3.
THE BUSH/CHENEY/POWELL SECURITY STRATEGY and Congressional Patriot Act present us with a daily choice between “unpatriotically” serving living beings, the Earth, and international goodwill or “patriotically” serving the corporate nation-state as it transforms our military into a global police force, the world into a police state, and Iraq into an oil-producing colony for “us” and an internment camp for its own people. Post-9/11 anti-Saddam talk has usurped thought, annihilated international trust, and polarized our populace. It has endangered Americans abroad and at home. It has led us further and further from reason, history, and physical reality.

Iraq is not Saddam Hussein. It is the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, home of the Sumerians and ancient Babylonia, of The Epic of Gilgamesh, of Bedouin tribes. Iraq is Mesopotamia, for Christ’s sake, and the 944,000 cigar-sized depleted-uranium(DU)-coated bullets we fired and abandoned there during the Gulf War will remain radioactive roughly a million times longer than all the time since ancient Mesopotamia was born. Leukemia and other cancers have mushroomed since DU arrived. Military spokespersons scoff the coincidence, claiming that DU radiation can be blocked by a sheet of paper. I know of no man, woman, or child with a protective sheet of paper located between their mouth and stomach, or between their nostrils and lungs.

Iraq is not Saddam. It is twenty-two million egregiously sanctioned people, fifty-five percent of whom now live in abject poverty, with a majority of children now unschooled because of societal breakdown. According to every humanitarian study I’ve seen, millions of Iraqis are chronically malnourished—a condition permanently damaging to children. U.S. pundits who’ve never seen Iraq praise the U.N. Oil for Food program as the solution to this problem and blame the ever-handy Saddam for the program’s failures. But two successive Oil for Food head coordinators, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, resigned in protest over the program’s insufficiencies and now travel the world preaching that malnutrition remains rampant, and that U.S. political manipulation of the sanctions is the single greatest cause of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. A word from that old moralist, Leo Tolstoy, seems in order: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back.”

4.
THERE IS A SUPERSTITION—fed most savagely these days by politicians and news media—holding that what we hear firsthand is “true” or “real” and that what we merely imagine is “untrue” or “unreal.” News reports, for instance, are real, while the works of Tolstoy are not. This is nonsense. Insofar as literature enlivens imaginations, firms our grasp of reality, or strengthens our regard for fellow humans, it serves the world. And insofar as the president-character speaks scripts that deny life-threatening facts or erode the careful distinctions that sustain civil discourse and international goodwill, the “real” news report merely disseminates propaganda.

Reportage can, and daily does, lie. Even first-hand experience can lie. And “mere” imaginary experience can open us to truths that would remain inaccessible forever if we had to wait for reportage or experience to teach us the same truth. One of the greatest of human traits, for example, is compassion, which means, literally, “to suffer with another.” But this high art is seldom born in an instant thanks to “news” or to first-hand experiences. More often its seed is sown via a preliminary magic known as empathy. And empathy begins with a fictive act::

What would it be like to be that black girl four rows in front of me? a little white girl wonders in school one morning. Her imagination sets to work, creating unwritten fiction. In her mind she becomes the black girl, dons her clothes, accent, skin, joins her friends after school, goes home to her family, lives that life. No first-hand experience is taking place. Nothing newsworthy is happening. Yet a white-girl-turned-fictitiously-black is linking skin hue to life, skin hue to choice of friends and neighborhood, skin hue to opportunity and history. Words she used without thinking—African, color, white—feel suddenly different. And when her imaginary game is over they’ll still sound different. Via sheer fiction, empathy enters a human heart.

To be a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, is to immerse oneself daily in unstinting fiction-making. Christ’s words “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” to cite a famously ignored example, demand an arduous imaginative act. This deceptively simple line orders me, as I look at you, to imagine that I am not seeing you, but me, and then to treat this imaginative you as if you are me. And for how long? Till the day I die! Christ orders anyone who’s serious about him to commit this “Neighbor = Me” fiction until they forget for good which of the two of themselves to cheat in a business deal or abandon in a crisis or smart-bomb in a war—at which point their imaginative act, their fiction-making, will have turned his words into reality and they’ll be saying with Mother Teresa, “I see Christ in every woman and man.”

Mahatma Gandhi insisted that he was a Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew. He also blessed, while dying, the Hindu fanatic who murdered him. In the Middle East, the Balkans, Pakistan, India, New York, Bali, we begin to see why. True, the ability to love neighbor as self is beyond the reach of most people. But the attempt to imagine thy neighbor as thyself is the daily work of every literary writer and reader I know. Literature’s sometimes troubling, sometimes hilarious depictions of those annoying buffoons, our neighbors, may be the greatest gift we writers give the world when they become warm-up exercises for the leap toward actually loving them. Ernest Hemingway made a wonderful statement about this. “Make it up so truly,” he advised, “that later it will happen that way.” This is, I dare say, Christ-like advice, not just to those practicing an art form known as fiction writing, but to anyone trying to live a faith, defend the weak, or love a neighbor.

5.
IT IS MY BEST GUESS, this fifteenth day of November 2002, that the civic grief I’m feeling and words I’m setting down will change nothing in the visible world. Americans in power, through a torrent of anti-literature, have turned twenty-two million of our Iraqi neighbors into a single psychopathic monster. Though I pray I’m wrong, and thank the international community for opposing the will of Bush/Cheney/Powell, I still fear that the U.S. may go to war soon, that this war will be brief but devastating, that many more children and civilians will die, that we will never be told their numbers, just as we were not told the numbers killed in Afghanistan or in the Gulf War, and that many Americans for this reason will pretend that no such dead exist. I fear that weapons of mass destruction will be discovered in Iraq, that the discovery will be hailed as the greatest victory yet in the war against terror, and that the U.S. will use this victory to justify occupying Iraq with a military force whose job it will be to cultivate international goodwill and protect us here at home by brandishing weapons of destruction all day every day at Muslims forbidden to brandish their own. I fear that as we shed more red liquid to ensure a flow of black liquid back to the United States, we will go on fighting for “homeland security,” as we have for three years, by cutting funding to Superfund sites, prying open protected lands to industry, hamstringing laws created to protect vanishing species, reducing safeguards against pollutants, defying the Kyoto Accord, assisting in the corporate copyrighting of Earth’s plant and animal species and America’s fresh water, curtailing civil liberties, diverting money from education and human resources, excluding biologists, ecologists, humanitarians, and other voices of compassion and science from policy-making groups ruled by private business and greed, stonewalling clean energy legislation, and ignoring sustainable energy technologies that could prevent future oil wars. I fear these courses of action will lead to ever greater addiction to oil, ever more vicious foreign policy, ever more military actions, hence an ever-more-burning desire on the part of the world’s disenfranchised to commit acts of violence against us. I pray no such acts occur, though they already have. I pray the next such act will not involve biochemical or nuclear weapons, though we lead the world in the ownership and production of both. I pray, I pray, I pray. But the only way I know to pluck from the hearts of enemies their desire to destroy us is to remove from their lives the sense that, for their own physical and spiritual survival, they must.

This work will require tens of thousands of acts of atonement. Attempting one such act myself, I last year published two essays expressing my incredulity and grief over the U.S. destruction of Iraq’s 1,400 water supply and sewage treatment plants. This destruction took place in defiance of the Geneva Convention after the Gulf War ended. Worse still, our Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) predicted, in 1991 documents declassified in 2001, that the destruction of these systems would probably not harm Saddam and his armies but would lead to epidemic disease, especially among children. The documents go into surprising detail: they note that Iraq’s rivers contain biota and pollutants which, unless treated with chlorine, cause cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, and other diseases. They note that chlorine was embargoed by the sanctions, as were medicines that treat such diseases. Knowing all this, the first Bush administration destroyed Iraq’s clean water anyway. Safe drinking water vanished. Three hundred thousand tons of raw sewage began to flow daily into Iraq’s rivers. The sanctions on chlorine and medicine remained in place.

The DIA documents continued: they mentioned epidemic outbreaks of acute diarrhea, dysentery, respiratory ailments, measles, diphtheria, meningitis, and hepatitis B causing problems—most notably death—in children. They describe a refugee camp in which four fifths of the population came down with such diseases: eighty percent of the resulting dead were children. When a team of Harvard doctors witnessed the epidemics in the mid-1990s and urged that sanctions barring medicine be lifted, the DIA said the Iraqi regime was exaggerating the incidence of disease and death for political purposes.

This argument against mercy remains in place to this day. A now-world-famous UNICEF study estimates that 500,000 Iraqi children age five and under have died as a result of the combination of sanctions and purposefully fouled water.

6.
BY THE TIME I FOUND and cited the UNICEF study, I knew that many Americans had written it off as “flawed.” With the help of an Internet-deft, altruistic (and Republican) scholar, I have researched the pros and cons of the study. I learned that the debate over the “500,000” number is the result of understandable confusion: the same number comes from two different sources. The first was a five-day, Iraq-controlled 1995 study of 693 households in Baghdad alone—a study so shoddy that its conclusions were later withdrawn by its own authors. Its estimate of half a million “excess child deaths” due to U.N. sanctions became famous anyway, thanks to a 1996 Leslie Stahl Sixty Minutes interview with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. When Stahl mentioned the flawed study’s “500,000 dead,” then asked Albright if the sanctions were still worth it, Albright made the double mistake of responding as if the number were fact, and of answering yes. The 500,000 number was pounced upon and often exaggerated by humanitarians, inspiring what one might call “counter-humanitarians” to claim in magazines as diverse as Commonweal, The New Republic, and National Review that the number is “in dispute” and “leftist whining” and that all blame for the deaths, whatever the number, should be placed not on sanctions but on Saddam.

There are two problems with the counterclaims. One is that, regardless of the number, it was the first Bush administration, not Saddam’s regime, that blew up Iraq’s water treatment facilities—and not as an act of war but as a carefully researched, postwar act that predicted the ravaging of children. The other problem is the findings of the 1999 child mortality study done by UNICEF.

Based on interviews conducted in no less than 40,000 Iraqi households—with local assistance but conducted with UNICEF involvement at every stage and technical support from the World Health Organization and independent analysts—this study too concludes that roughly 500,000 more Iraqi children than would have otherwise died in the 1990s, died before reaching the age of five. To greet this finding with politically motivated denial requires an ostrich-length neck and a lot of deep soft sand. The report has been dissected endlessly. The best such analysis I’ve found, done by Richard Garfield in 1999, pares away numbers arrived at by shaky data but still concludes that between 1991 and 1998 there was a “likely sum” of 350,000 excess five-and-under child deaths in Iraq, that these deaths are “the tip of the iceberg among damages” yet to occur, that this disaster far exceeds any level of “acceptable damages according to the principles…used in warfare,” and that “sanctions and regulations should be modified immediately.”

When I first read the UNICEF study my wife and I happened to be nursing our daughters through illnesses that without antibiotics could have killed them both. The number 500,000 destroyed me. The number 350,000 has not brought relief. When I am deeply troubled I fall back on a few trusted mentors. An Indian mentor named Eruch once said, “If you don’t know how to take something, take it on the physical level.” The closest I can come to following this advice, with regard to Iraq’s children, is to rely on the physical senses, eyes, and heart of a woman named Gerri Haynes.

7.
GERRI IS A WOODINVILLE, Washington, nurse who heads a group called Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. She had already been on three missions of mercy to Iraq when, after reading my OrionOnline essay, “A Prayer for Water and Children,” she invited me to join her on a fourth in May of 2002. She was not good at selling her proposal. “It will be sad,” she promised. I was unable to join her in part out of fear, and in part due to other commitments. But in September 2002 I telephoned Gerri, and we talked for two hours about her four journeys.

The first thing that struck me about Gerri Haynes is how respectful she is toward those who’ve not been hearing about the kinds of things she has seen. “The psyche wants balance,” she told me. “It doesn’t want a sudden shocking awareness of things that would compel us to change our lives… In Iraq, children we saw everywhere had the distended bellies of the chronically malnourished. Twelve-year-olds looked like eight-year-olds… An already burdened person can hardly bear (such) news. Most Americans are kind-hearted. The plain sight of suffering and dying children would inspire almost any of them to realign their lives, change their work, their habits, their thinking, anything, if they saw they were contributing to thousands of children’s demise. It’s very, very hard to hear this kind of thing.”

I told Gerri that in the face of such nightmares I try to console myself with the fact that I am not the “We” who commits military and foreign policy atrocities. Very quietly, Gerri replied, “But we pay taxes. So we fund these disasters. And it’s a bipartisan effort. The Clinton administration was terrible about this. It’s not a party-specific problem. This is a government run, in both parties, by greed and multinational interests, a government that wants nothing to do with true humanitarian aims… Human beings are all made of the same delicate fabric. That’s where my ‘We’ comes from.”

My small consolation vanished.

We spoke of the 1999 UNICEF child mortality studies. Gerri’s take: “The numbers vary widely, from somewhere around 300,000 to a high of maybe two million. Physicians in Baghdad, when I was there in ‘99, estimated that 100 to 150 kids were dying just there, every day. But it’s a number that’s impossible to prove for several reasons. One is that the mechanisms Iraqis had for gathering statistics have not been put back together since the Gulf War. Another is that, after it became apparent that there were limited drugs in the hospitals, many Iraqis stopped bringing their very sick children in. This was particularly true in Basra, where there’s a large Bedouin population. These people just keep their kids home, and bury them at home. Gathering exact statistics is impossible.

“We do know that the level of leukemia is greatly increased. We know that congenital malformation has greatly increased. In May 2002 we talked with a woman scientist, Souad Al Azzawi, who said that if the rise in leukemia had been due, as some U.S. politicians claim, to burning oil fires, the pollutants that have since cleared from the environment would have caused the number of leukemia cases to come down. Instead, leukemia levels began to rise five to seven years after 1991—the expected time-frame following radiation exposure—and have remained inordinately high. Many believe the answer is DU.”

I was impressed that Gerri did not accuse. She just said “many believe.”

“But this doesn’t say anything,” she added, “to the experience of going to hospital after hospital and seeing every bed with a child in it, sometimes two children per bed—children that look to my eye as though they are very close to death. It doesn’t speak to the experience of watching mothers and fathers feel hopeless and helpless to save their children. We live on hope. How can we not tell other Americans about what we have participated in creating?”

In 2000, shortly before a planned fourth trip to Iraq, Gerri Haynes was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she mentioned this during our interview I was already so undone by all she’d been saying that I lacked the good grace to ask what she’d been through, or what her prognosis was. I only know that, whatever she endured that year, in September 2001 she was prepared to lead another humanitarian group to Iraq. Then 9/11 happened.

She said, “The delegation had to wait for travel to again become possible. Then they had to try to reorganize. It was difficult. It’s very expensive to go there. And time-consuming for people who have full-time jobs—people who are using their vacation time to do this arduous, upsetting work.”

But in May 2002, Gerri returned to Iraq yet again.

Before this recent trip—amid all the flag-waving and war-rumblings—Gerri’s oldest daughter tried to persuade her to stay home. Gerri didn’t describe their discussion, but she did say that, after finally accepting Gerri’s sense of mission, daughter offered mother an old-souled piece of advice. “If you do go,” she said, “be completely present, wherever you go.”

These words returned to Gerri in an Iraqi hospital virtually bereft of medicine and hope. While her group moved from bed to bed, Gerri approached a woman sitting next to her dying child. Gerri speaks no Arabic. The woman spoke no English. Trying to be “present” anyway, Gerri looked at the child, then at the woman, and placed her right hand over her own heart.

The Iraqi mother immediately placed her right hand over her own heart.

Gerri’s eyes and the mother’s eyes simultaneously filled with tears.

The hospital was crowded. Gerri’s visitation time was short. She started to move to the next bed, but then remembered her daughter’s words: “Completely present…” She and the mother were already crying, their hands over their hearts. There was nothing Gerri could do, despite all her medical training, for the child. “How much more present,” she wondered, “is it possible to be?”

She stepped forward anyway. With no plan but vague allegiance to the commandment, “Completely present,” the nurse without medicine stepped toward the bed of the dying child and inconsolable mother. She then put both of her hands out, palms up.

The Iraqi mother fell into her arms.

“If only this experience were unique!” Gerri told me. “But I can’t tell you, any longer, how many mothers I"ve now held in this same way.”

Her voice grew faint over the phone. I heard: “...diseases that children would almost never die from in the U.S…”

I heard: “Medicine so basic…”

Then her voice faded, or maybe I drowned it out. I’ve never taken interview notes while sobbing before.

8.
IN 1967, during the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have felt like a minority of one when he spoke up, at the Riverside Church in New York City, against the flag-wavers and public opinion polls of the day. He still had the courage to say, “A time comes when silence is betrayal. Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness so close around us… We are called upon to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

To abandon the words of Dr. King is to let the bullet kill him a second time. I believe, based on his call, that no matter what happens in the next war with Iraq, we lose. We lose because we have already lost. We lost when we flew 110,000 sorties over Iraq in forty-two days in 1991, dropping 88,500 tons of ordnance on an unsortable tangle of military installations, palaces, power plants, communications sites, mosques, schools, homes, civilians, soldiers in arms, soldiers in retreat, soldiers in postures of surrender, soldiers too shell-shocked to do anything but stand in the road and accept annihilation. We lost when we characterized our slaughter of the retreating Iraqi army as a “turkey shoot” and the incinerated bodies of fathers and sons as “crispy critters.” We lost when Colin Powell, asked for the number of Iraqi dead produced by this blitzkrieg, responded, “Frankly that’s a number that doesn’t interest me very much.” We lost when the first Bush administration researched the destruction of water systems, read predictions of death to children, and destroyed the systems anyway. We lost when we urged the U.N. to ban chlorine and medicines, witnessed the ensuing epidemics, and refused to ease the sanctions. We lost when we scattered tons of depleted uranium dust over Iraq that will go on fighting all life forms for eons. We lost when we were apprised of studies showing such cancer increases as lymphoma (four-fold), lung (five-fold), breast (six-fold), uterine (nearly ten-fold), skin (eleven-fold), liver (eleven-fold), ovarian (sixteen-fold), but still denied the connection, still make and deploy DU, and recently nixed, by pressuring the U.N., a World Health Organization study of DU in Iraq. We lost when, in the week following the November elections, we allocated $355 billion toward more such global “defense” activities in 2003. We will go on losing as long as we go on pretending to be preventing evil by inflicting these abysmal “strategies.”

There is no man or woman, no nation, no mortal power on Earth capable of “ridding the world of evil” as George W. Bush has vowed to do. The desire is preposterous. To act upon preposterousness with vast military might is evil. To acquiesce in such evil is somnolence.

One and a quarter billion Muslims share this world with us. The Bush administration seems to be seeking their mass conversion and surrender to the values of corporate Texas. I seek to remember Gandhi’s declaration that he was a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew. I seek Dr. King’s sense of brotherhood with people who surrender five times a day “to the Merciful, the Compassionate.” I seek, in the face of my own or anyone’s failure to live by the Gospels, the Koran, the sutras, to “make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.”

To define compassion as dissident does not alter the Compassionate. To define mercy as unpatriotic does not change the eternally Merciful. Gerri Haynes placing her palms out to the mother of a dying child, that mother falling into her arms, their joined tears—this is a victory over evil.

The child died even so.

Jesus. Muhammad. Allah. God. Help our “strategists” and “patriots” make up our neighbors more truly.

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This essay has been abridged for the web.

David James Duncan is the author of The River Why and The Brothers K, and a collection of memoir and short stories, River Teeth. His most recent book, My Story as Told by Water, won the Western States Book Award and was nominated for the 2001 National Book Award.

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