Issue #77 May 7th - 20th 2004
The beauty in the way that we are living - Installment 11
The case of the missing smile
Denial all over again
Once more I found myself, in that glorious illusion
Even now, I can see in my minds rather peculiar eyes
I saw and experienced that which had been only dreams,
Long since that extended voyage of my mind and soul,
The beauty in the way that we are living, installment eleven
Life is a struggle between letting go and keeping things close to one's heart. For example: they said "you'll get over him now", and they were wrong. I didn't get over him then, it took three long years of wondering what this getting over actually meant. I knew I would be better off without the pain of not being able to be with him in my heart anymore. At the same time I couldn't really imagine life without it. After all I had to prove to those people -and also to the part of myself that fell for their predictions- that he meant so much more than that to me. Three years nicely summed up by the line "when every step I take is just one more step away from you" later the point is safely proven and I think I should make space in my heart for someone else. And I don't know why I'm telling you this except maybe you're willing to listen. And saying something to an indefinite number of willing to listen strangers (and half-strangers) feels a little bit like praying. Also it is something of a brave thing to do.
On other news, as April advanced, a summer feeling came upon Athens, which got me feeling restless; then it turned into May and dissolved into showers. I find I am as fascinated by the weather as I have always been, and, despite everything, nearly as fascinated by the world as I have always been too.
35. And so I find myself in a train that rushes past the most familiar countryside I know -that on the sound side of my hometown- as the sun rises and I fall asleep on my book, and I pray for a new start. And so it happens.
36. Before the sun rises again I find myself at a gig, dancing my heart out, on my own, to a song I don't even like that much. I haven't been to a gig in ages and I the strange mixture of wishful thinking (please, let them play my favourite song) and excitement of dreams coming true (aww, this is so great, I can't believe I'm here) it involves amazes me.
37. "Why do I have to do that, too?"
38. I wake up on a Thursday morning missing London badly. I miss buying cheap, bad Chinese food in Camden and looking at signs that say how many miles up the canal Birmingham is. I miss staring at the tube map trying to figure out the best way to get to someplace, I miss the crowds and the buses and sublime green of the parks and the feeling this all gives me that this is as fun as things get. I try to forget it to get some work done, but when I do I regret it. I miss my dreams.
39. It's a Saturday night and, being as exciting as it gets, me and Nick huddle quietly in front of my computer screen for two hours to watch 'Lost in translation'. When it's over I'm nearly in love with the girl in it as well as with some of the pictures too. Also with the beginning lines of Jesus and Mary Chain's 'Just like honey': "Listen to this girl as she takes on half the world. Moving up and so alive." I'm less fond of the next line ("in her honey dripping beehive") but this too is stuck in my head just the same.
Then we go and sit on the tiny square that's almost across the street from my house. It's a rather ugly place but at least it's outdoors, and the cable lines that run above it shine under the dark sky as they lead to the centre. This image makes me strangely, secretly happy. We sit on a bench in near silence where I toss and squirm and can't sit still and I sigh as the things I'm thinking get too much for me - how great the world is, and how big; what it would be like to be married, and how I would really like to find that out; how I long to travel, how I'd like to see the way the rain falls in Tokyo too, and what it would be like to be like those people: rich, and having people marvel at your work at such a young age.
I regretfully wish I were like them - regretfully, because as I do all the songs I know about the bourgeoisie come tumbling in my head and I can hear all my friends telling me we're fine the way we are, each in their own way. It's overwhelming, but then so is the urge to do something with my life.
As I sigh some more and swear to myself I'll try harder -even harder, as hard as it gets- the night creeps through my spring coat and my t-shirt; it touches my skin and makes me feel alive in places I had forgotten I owned. Now that's what spring is like. That's what spring is for.
The case of the missing smile
The house looks much the same as any other house on the street. The girl looks much the same as any other girl returning from work, and the day is much like any other day.
The girl looks over her shoulder as she turns her key in the door. Then, when she was sure nobody is looking, she steps inside. She goes straight to the fridge, and pours herself a drink of orange juice. Having downed the drink, she runs upstairs and changes out of her work clothes and into a bright red jumper and a pair of old jeans.
As soon as she is done with the formalities she opens her bag. Her bag contains evidence.
First of all she gets out a packet of photographs that she has developed that day. The first picture she looks at shows a girl being pushed on a swing, she is laughing and reaching for the sky. She collates the evidence with notes made into a small blue notepad. Our detective notes that the girl had been singing a song about flying.
The next picture shows an old man sat next to an old woman. They were smiling and looking out into space. The girl had studied this couple on more than one occasion. She had spotted them last week in the local supermarket buying a loaf of bread, some rich tea biscuits and 3 bananas. She spotted them again three days later walking down the road into the town centre. They didn't seem to speak to each other but an invisible communication passed between them.
The girl flicks through some more pictures discarding most until she finds one showing a young boy running down the road wearing his coat by its hood. In his mind is superman, and he is on his way to rescue some children from a burning building.
Our detective, still smiling from seeing the picture, walks through into her bedroom and pulls out a bigger more detailed notebook, filled with small neat writing, and pictures of a multitude of strangers. She carefully glues each picture into place and writes a her conclusion by each:
12.34pm Tuesday -She is happy because her dad is pushing her. It makes her feel safe, and wanted but at the same time she believes she can do anything. With each kick of her legs she touches the sky.
10.15am Monday -They are happy because they are together and because they know they always will be. Her hand fits into his like a glove and they watch the world move by too fast, content because they don't need to catch up.
3.30pm Thursday -He is happy because school has finished and because he can wear his coat like a cape. He doesn't realise he is happy because he is lost in his own imagination.
The girl allows ample time for the glue to dry before closing the book. She is pleased with the bits of happiness she has collected that day. She knows they will come in handy on those grey winter days when it isn't so easy to remember how to smile.
I tried to call you, I tried. I pulled myself through memories, nuances and the
like, and I tried to call you.
Denial All Over Again
Revelations about American torture at Abu Ghraib prison and widespread British use of torture in Iraq echo the shock when the massacre of the entire village of My Lai in Vietnam by US troops was revealed in 1969. Then as now the American government and military claimed that the atrocity was the result of a few soldiers who were out of control - an unfortunate breakdown of leadership.
Then as now this story just doesn't hold water. Testimony by over 100 Vietnam veterans in 1971 revealed that, in the words of veteran Al Hubbard 'My Lai was not an isolated incident' but 'only one step beyond the standard official United States policy in Indo-China' (Young,1991, 256). As Private Reginald Edwards put it orders were 'if you receive one round from a village you level it.' and kill anyone in it or attempting to escape - except a few kept for interrogation by torture (Young, 1990,143-145).
Soon this became massacre and levelling of villages whether or not any fire was taken or any enemy forces spotted. The Maoist guerrilla tactical doctrine adopted by the Vietnamese was that the people are the water in which the fish (the guerrilla fighter) swims. The American military's solution was simple - get rid of the water. Any Vietnamese peasant was thought to potentially be supplying enemy forces with rice and therefore 'enemy'(Young, 1991, 164). There were innumerable massacres like My Lai - some of which- like those by 'Tiger Force' have only recently come to light. Far from punishing rape, torture and killings of civilians commanding officers punished soldiers who tried to prevent such atrocities and told them to see psychiatrists. The truth about Iraq and Afghanistan is coming out the same way - slowly, one revelation at a time, with governments and militaries claiming they are 'isolated incidents'.
However many Americans are still in denial about US war crimes in Vietnam never mind in Iraq and Afghanistan now. Instead they repeat the same propaganda lines fed to them by their governments about 'peace', 'freedom' and 'democracy'. Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, who in the past spoke for Vietnam Veterans against the War has admitted the reality and his guilt over a massacre he commanded.
In congressional testimony in 1971 Vietnam veteran David Bressen told of a 'search and destroy' mission on a US helicopter gunship described the rules of engagement. One rule was that anyone taking 'evasive action' (i.e. running away) could be shot. If Vietnamese civilians failed to run the helicopter would pass over repeatedly to panic them into running - then shoot them (Young, 1991, 165). In a modern parallel a French cable TV station has acquired footage from a US helicopter in Iraq in December 2003. It shows the gunship firing on Iraqis who do not appear to be threatening it in any way. They make sure to finish off a wounded survivor.
In the recent offensive on Falluja the Vietnam style targeting of anyone who moved and razing of entire areas of the city was again in evidence. Despite US military assurances that '95%' of the dead have been enemy combatants due to 'precise targeting' hospitals in Falluja report that over half the 600 plus dead have been women, children and old people. Eyewitnesses say US troops shot anyone who moved - and razed whole houses full of civilians.
President Bush claims the torture at Abu Ghraib was an 'isolated incident' which is not representative of American forces. In fact a US army report reveals that US Military Intelligence ordered the US Military Police involved to 'soften up' the Iraqis held there for 'interrogation', dictated the methods to be used, and congratulated the torturers on doing a great job, telling them to 'keep up the good work'.
This again is nothing new. In Vietnam the CIA and US military intelligence ran the 'Phoenix Program' - in which they recruited Vietnamese agents and informers and arrested tens of thousands of Vietnamese from suspected enemy forces to school teachers and supporters of electoral candidates not favoured by Washington. Torture -and often death - followed. Methods included electrocution of the genitals and starvation in cages. Like the 'counter-terrorism interrogation' programme which Abu Ghraib is part of the Phoenix program was an extension of a 'counter-terrorism' programme of torture and murder begun by the CIA in 1965 (Young, 1991, 212-3 ,240-241).
Last year an Iraqi version of the Phoenix program was established in Iraq with the recruitment of a 10,000 strong secret police force to operate under CIA and Pentagon control, including many former members of Saddam's notorious Mukhabarat.
Modern British and American torture methods are more advanced - according to the US army report methods used at Abu Ghraib included sleep deprivation, prolonged beatings often causing broken bones and permanent damage to internal organs - sometimes death, humiliation, rape, sodomy with broom handles. Amnesty International has evidence that far from Abu Ghraib being an 'isolated incident' it , like the My Lai massacre before it, is a widespread abuse which governments and militaries have refused to stop.
Of course US Defense Secretary doesn't like the word 'torture' to describe such actions - it sounds so harsh. He prefers 'abuses' - and hasn't bothered to read the 2 month old army report on what happened at Abu Ghraib yet (well why would he when he probably knew of it long before ?).
Bush promises those responsible for the 'abuses' will be punished. In fact some of those responsible for killing two of the Iraqis known to have died at Abu Ghraib - private contractors working for CACI International on a US federal contract - not only face no charges but have stayed in their jobs - and their bosses (just like US military intelligence) say one of them is doing a 'damn fine job'.
British army units are involved in torture by beating and random killings too and the abuses are so widespread that the idea that they are not part of a policy of interrogation by torture is not believable. This has been established by eyewitness accounts by Iraqis and by British soldiers to the extent that whether or not the Mirror newspapers photos of torture by British troops prove genuine is largely academic. One British soldier has revealed that senior officers ordered torture which was referred to as 'tactical interrogation'. In other words torture is ordered as standard practice
Iraqis and Afghans who die of heart attacks after prolonged beatings are recorded as having died of 'natural causes' by the British and American militaries. In two cases in Afghanistan the actual death certificate filled out by a US army pathologist recorded beatings and gave the cause of death as 'homicide'.
How many people this is happening to is unknown as so many Iraqis and Afghans are 'disappeared' just as they were under Saddam and the Taliban. According to the internal US army report into Abu Ghraib no official records were taken of prisoners taken to the prison blocks reserved for torture and the International Red Cross were denied access to those parts of the prison - just as areas of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan are hidden from Red Cross inspections.
The horrible truth is that torture ( and in the Americans' case firing on anything that moves as soon as urban combat breaks out) are policies of the American and British militaries - and policies condoned by their governments. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the British government have had reports from the International Red Cross and Amnesty International on torture by their forces in Iraq for months - and refused to stop it. When you go into a war or a military occupation both sides invariably start committing atrocities. It's no good pointing to Al Qa'ida bombings of civilians or resistance mutilation of the corpses of American soldiers and mercenaries as if these justify our forces' killing and torture of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Nor is it any use to refuse to believe that 'decent' people like us could never be responsible for atrocities.
Only a negotiated peace, an end to the occupation, and free elections can possibly end this problem. In Vietnam as in Iraq today the American government and military claimed they could not withdraw as there would be a 'bloodbath' if they did. Then as now more than half the blood being spilled is being spilled by them and the idea that they are 'protecting' Iraqi civilians is nothing short of doublespeak. As usual the dominant line is that those supporting invasions and occupations are sensible 'moderates' while those opposing them are 'extremists' or don't understand how terrible and bestial the enemy are. The truth is war makes all sides bestial and while Bush and Blair talk about 'peace', 'freedom' and 'democracy' their militaries carry out torture, killings and repression. No inquiries that pretend a handful of troops have got out of control will change this. Like the Vietnam War the only thing that offers any hope for our troops or the people whose countries they are occupying is to bring our troops home now.
Offline Sources - Marilyn B. Young (1991) The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, Harper Collins, New York, 1991