From The Inside Looking Out: Report-14
—Who Is Babylon?—
(Amman, Jordan, April 6, 2003) These days Ben Tre is very much on my
mind, because Baghdad is. (My wife Sis and I and other members of
CPT's presence in Iraq have just returned from there.) Ben Tre was
the city during the Vietnam War, which an exulting U. S. military
public information officer declared was destroyed in order to save
it. The comparison may not be seamless but the similarities, if you
can excuse the intended irony, are close enough for government work.
For in fact, with respect to lunatic geopolitics all of Iraq is on
the verge of becoming Ben Tre.
But where testing homicidal technology is concerned, which is what
military hardware is really all about, Iraq is also terrifyingly
comparable to the defenseless village of Guernica during the time of
the Spanish civil war. Fascist bomber pilots warming up for what
turned out to be the Axis' failed attempt to establish a "new world
order" (ah, there, George Bush Senior!) tested their attack
techniques and weaponry on the place; and it was obliterated. Pablo
Picasso immortalized that calamitous event in his powerful neo-
Goyaesque painting of the same name.
As our Iraq Peace Team delegation made its way out of Baghdad—Ben Tre—
Guernica, allied forces were closing in on it. The run down city was
hushed, uncertain, and in a kind of state of near suspended
animation. The effects of the previous war followed by years of
sanctions and blockade, and now the new war with its intermittent but
round the clock air raids had brought normal daytime and evening
hustle and bustle to a halt.
The people were hunkered down safely—they hoped—behind closed doors
and shuttered or taped windows. Most shops not having to do with
survival—such as food—were closed. Traffic was moderate. So, although
Baghdad was not a ghost town, it had a ghost town appearance.
Meanwhile above the streets and buildings a black smudge-like haze
permanently shrouded most of the city: the result of a series of
burning trenches of oil circling the area. They had been kept blazing
since the war began in a futile gesture to obscure potential targets
from the allies' shock and awe air raids.
One of the few times nonviolent humanitarian communicators and the
international press still operating in Baghdad could encounter
ordinary citizens en masse was at places Foreign Ministry "minders"
took them and us in order to see and gather first hand accounts of
the toll in lives and lingering pain that the bombings were taking in
demonstrably civilian areas. People from the neighborhoods affected
would be on hand, as we pulled up in cabs driven by government
The survivors were anxious to tell their stories of pain and fear and
express their bewilderment and rage. The bewilderment was over why
they were being made to pay such a steep price for the actions of a
government over which they had no control, while the rage took two
forms. General rage over the fact that they were being hit instead of
military or other kinds of targets contributing to official
belligerence and resistance; and specific rage over increasing
evidence that anti-personnel fragmentation devices were being dropped
The main purpose of those weapons is to maim and wound not
necessarily to destroy. From a distance a person struck by those
solid metallic sharp edged flying shards looks like someone with a
bad case of the measles, but close up those "measles" are bleeding
wounds from which removing each jagged pellet is inevitably painful
If the purpose of just this one aspect of the allies' air campaign
had been to create docility among the populace in Baghdad with
respect to the invasion and a spirit of revolt with respect to the
Iraqi police state, it appeared to be having a cumulative opposite
effect. A perhaps unanticipated byproduct of the rising civilian
death toll had been not just a strengthening unity in anger against
the allied fomenters of this war being waged against helpless and
uninvolved Iraqis but the increasing iconization of Sadaam Hussein in
the very center of what was still his nation—a process, which may
only have served to further harden the resolve and nerve of this
clearly anti-heroic strongman's increasingly beleaguered regime and
That is not to say that his regime will not fall. As of this writing,
there is certainly a possibility of that happening, but there is also
the likelihood of the aftermath turning into a gigantic Afghanistan:
an increasingly hollow victory for the United States, if ever there
was one, not to mention for the millions of Afghanis living uneasily
outside the safety of the small enclaves protected by our forces.
So called "liberated" Afghanis are having to cope with living in
still violently unstable areas run by war lords. Democracy in much of
Afghanistan is still a slogan. In view of this hardly publicized lack
of genuine success with respect to regime change, there is much to be
said for the notion that when it comes to establishing democracy
allied leaders really need to learn to crawl before deciding to walk.
Or is our nation going to keep at our historically calamitous
practice for too many of the peoples we have professed to be trying
to set free until we get it right—no matter how many innocents are
caught in the deadly cross fire of our so-called patriotic duty and
resolve, as well as our updated attitudes with respect to manifest
destiny and the arrogant perquisites of superpowerism?
Just before the last Gulf War, I was on a panel with some theologians
who certainly could recite many many more versus from scripture from
memory than I can. They were trying to understand the battle taking
place in scriptural terms. I still can remember one gentleman, who
was clearly on the side of leveraging the end times, saying, "Up to
now I had always thought that all those prophecies concerning Babylon
had to do with Rome. Now I can see, they really meant Baghdad."
I stopped my self just in time from blurting out sarcastically, "Make
up your mind!" That's because what he said also triggered an
existentially significant question, which I realized I needed to
ponder some instead of shooting off my mouth so glibly.
And the question was and is, "Who is Babylon?" That led me to reread,
Habakkuk for a possible answer, especially all of Chapter Two. If
you've got a few moments, I recommend taking a look at what he said:
even if religious conviction is not your thing. That's because the
prophets had ways of describing the human condition that stands the
test of time.
Here's just one sample: "You have plundered the people of many
nations, but now those who have survived will plunder you…because of
the violence you have committed against the people of the world and
I'm thinking, If the shoe fits!
So the vision I have of Babylon and its fall these days is not so
much of Baghdad, whose possible imminent fall certainly will bear
some resemblance to that ancient event but much more with the fall of
the World Trade Center. The potentially apocalyptic significance of
that clearly stupefying event we are, I am afraid, continuing to
ignore and deny at the entire world's peril.