What Now?

A letter from Kuwait City

By Michael Kelly

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.

It is all enough to give phony peaces a bad name. The original phony peace was at least, so to speak, real. France and England had desperately sound reasons for appeasing Hitler and avoiding war with Hitler's Reich: if there was a war, France and England would need to fight it. And having seen a generation of their men, and their national power, destroyed in the Great War, and having in consequence all but disarmed themselves, they were in no position to fight. Neville Chamberlain is derided for his "peace for our time"; indeed, his Blixian selfdelusion is cringe-making still: "In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face," he wrote after meeting Hitler, "I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon ..." Today we remember Chamberlain as the consummate fool, and it seems obvious to us what seemed obvious to Chamberlain's political opponent and successor. Britain had faced a choice "between shame and war," Winston Churchill wrote. "We have chosen shame, and we will get war." But it wasn't obvious to many until forced and forced and forced again on them, and it was Chamberlain, not Churchill, who was cheered in the streets when he brought back the peace that the people so badly wanted.

Today's phony peaces really are phony. Now (I am writing this in early March), as in the winter months of 1990-1991, no one has any real belief that peace is at hand, or may be brought to hand. War is expected, by everyone, and it is this expectation that allows the luxury of the phony peace—an interim between the advent of expectation and the arrival of reality, during which concerned parties may enjoy protesting against a war they know their protests will not stop. The phony peace provides a period of global theater in which the natural order of things may be reasserted: France behaves like France, Russia behaves like Russia, the United Nations behaves like the United Nations, America behaves like America. It is comforting in its way.

I spent the last days of the first Gulf War's phony peace in Baghdad, and I am spending the last days of this one's in Kuwait, soon to take part in the experiment of "embedding," as the jargon has it, some 500 journalists with the U.S. military for the duration of what is generally expected to be a short, exceedingly one-sided conflict. On the whole, I'd say, the phoniness quotient is down this time. We are spared, at least, much of the death-and-destruction-and-quagmire talk that preceded the last conflict here. The lessons of the campaign in Afghanistan, adding to the lessons of the campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia, have sunk in. The U.S. armed forces enjoy a technological superiority like nothing the world has seen before; they are, in a real sense, not even fighting the same war as their opponents—or in the same century. No one argues much now about whether these forces are capable of crushing even very serious opposition, and almost no one argues that Iraq offers serious opposition. Rather, the argument concerns whether the employment of this almost unfathomable power will be largely for good, leading to the liberation of a tyrannized people and the spread of freedom, or largely for bad, leading to imperialism and colonialism, with a consequent corruption of America's own values and freedoms. This question is real enough and more: probably the next hundred years hinges on the answer.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/05/what-now/302721/