What Now?

A letter from Kuwait City

One of the larger news features of mid-February was the arrival in Baghdad of some 200 peace missionaries from around the world, who had come, they announced in appropriately grave tones, to serve as "human shields"—to put themselves between the targets in Iraq and the bombers of the mad George W. Bush. The British contingent of the mission, traveling photogenically in two old-fashioned red double-decker buses, got the lion's share of the press, thanks in part to the media talents of sixty-eight-year-old Godfrey Meynell, who has an interestingly counterintuitive résumé for this sort of thing (he is a former Foreign Office man and a former high sheriff of Derbyshire), an attractive stiff-upper-lip yet unassuming-bloke-of-the-people manner, and the natural hamminess of a well-aged Smithfield. For a week or so you could scarcely pick up a London paper without catching a breeze from Meynell's stiff upper lip in action. "I do think if we have a large number of people at the sites, it will be very difficult for them to bomb," he said in a typical utterance. "I really do think so."

On March 2 The Sunday Telegraph reported that almost all of Britain's eleven would-be shields were among those who had decided, on second thought, that sequestering themselves in buildings slated to receive high explosives was actually too dangerous, and had quietly slipped away to home. The fault, apparently, lay with the perhaps naive Iraqi government, which apparently took at face value the missionaries' pronouncements of their willingness to risk life for peace. As the Telegraph reported, after nearly two weeks had passed in which only about sixty-five of the shields "had so far agreed to take up positions at the oil refineries, power plants and water-purification sites" selected by the Iraqi regime as "strategic sites," the government group hosting the pacifists, the Organization of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity, had presented them with an ultimatum: choose their spots or leave. Meynell, who was among the relative few to have bedded down at a potential crater (a Baghdad power station), was admirably forthright in admitting his new understanding of realities. "I am ashamed to be leaving you," he told the workers at the power station, "but I'm going out of pure, cold fear." It had come to him, he said, that "this power plant is right next to a bridge, surrounded by Republican Guards. It's obviously a prime target."

When the anti-warriors depart the theater of the coming war, you know you are nearing the end of that familiar thing we have come to know as the phony peace. What is oddly reassuring or entirely depressing about phony peaces is how they are always phony in exactly the same way. Twelve years ago, in the last weeks before the previous war with Saddam Hussein, I flew to Amman, en route to Baghdad, in a plane that was thickly settled with peace missionaries of one stripe or another. Daniel Ortega and Louis Farrakhan were up in first class, and back in economy was a party of some twenty or so mostly young people, led by a man named Stephen Zunes, who was an assistant professor of political science at Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Washington. Zunes explained the rationale of his mission to me. "You see," he said, "you can't really have war unless you dehumanize the enemy. And dialogue humanizes folks. We will meet with the Iraqis and when we go back we will share with Americans that they are human beings. We will be able to say, 'Look, we talked to these folks and they are human beings and they are going to be killed if we go forward with this war.'"

At least several hundred people of this sort passed through Baghdad in the last days of the phony peace, and they all made the evening news, and they all left before the bombing began. Then as now, the Pope was calling for peace and the Russians and the French and the Arab states were expressing dismay and outrage and offering elaborate diplomatic alternatives that were not intended to be acted upon. Then as now, Saddam and his minions passed the days alternating between puffer-fish blustering and ostentatious displays of "cooperation."

Now as then, the better sort of global citizens are concerned with explaining to the great oaf America that war is not the answer. "Is it the right time to close the door?" Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, asked plaintively. "A crisis of this kind should be solved by exclusively peaceful means," declared Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose handling of the crisis in Chechnya has been much remarked on for its restraint. "The military option should only be a last resort," lectured France—a consistent nation, if nothing else: "Frenchmen, do not attempt to commit any action which might bring terrible reprisals," Marshal Pétain said in an appeal to his countrymen for continued collaboration with the Nazis on the day after the Americans and the British arrived in Normandy to exercise the military option.

Presented by

Michael Kelly was The Atlantic's editor at large. He was killed in Iraq on April 3, 2003.

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