Chapter 6: Before the War
“Enemies are necessary for the wheels of the US military machine to turn.” – John Stockwell, former CIA official and author.
“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Someone once said that the tragedy of Germany in the 30s wasn’t that one man had the courage to be evil, but that so many people didn’t have the courage to be good.
Everyone wants a quite life.
Sometimes it is easier to go along with the prevailing norms than it is to look at the truth, to see evil, and to accept the pain that that brings.
Most people spent most of the war thinking that nothing much was wrong. Most people still think that nothing much is wrong.
One thing you can say in the German people’s defence is that they were working on faulty information. They thought they were under threat from the Jewish-Communist conspiracy. They were told this again and again. Documents were forged (like the famous Protocols of the Elders of Zion) to give this impression. The Nazis had a spectacular propaganda machine at their disposal, which they wielded to great effect. They were experts in the art of mass psychological control, in mind manipulation. “Enemies” were created, both at home and abroad, to keep the people in a state of fear, and to justify the repressive measures being doled out to some sections of the population. Meanwhile Goebbels churned out an unending stream of jolly Busby Berkeley style musicals in which gorgeous Aryan lassies in spangled costumes kicked their long legs in strict formation and sang.
How things have changed.
I was in Bristol to visit an old friend of mine, Ornella. We went on a sponsored walk around the MOD site in Abbey Wood, Filton, to protest against the secret war being carried out against the people of Iraq, by the UN, Britain and the US, through sanctions and continuation of the bombing. The bombing currently costs the British taxpayer in the region of £4.5 million a month, according to the MP Alan Simpson. Over 100 deadly missiles rain down upon them, month in, month out, wreaking more havoc to an already beleaguered and exhausted nation. I don’t remember being consulted about it, do you? When the Labour opposition gave out its list of pledges before the last election, I don’t seem to remember “We promise to bomb the people of Iraq back into the Stone Age” being one of them. Well, not the Stone Age in any case. People in the Stone Age had fresh water to drink, whereas the people of Iraq have to drink sewerage, due to the effects of the bombing of the Iraqi civilian infrastructure, such as water plants and sewerage and electricity sub-stations and radio stations and gas works. Obviously these are vital components in the formidable Iraqi war machine.
It’s hard to tell a story when you have such facts as these at your disposal. 6,000 children under the age of five die every month of the effects of sanctions.
Under the age of five.
All of us in this nation felt the naked anguish of the parents of Sarah Payne when they discovered that their child had gone missing. We saw their drawn faces as they made their heartfelt appeals on TV: we saw the pain written into the very flesh, the confusion, the hurt, the awful, heart-wrenching sense of loss. We felt this, and cried for them, didn’t we? We cried and we thought about our own children. How close the tragedy seemed to us all then, as we looked upon them and saw our own potential suffering, the suffering of all suffering people everywhere.
In Iraq this scene is carried out 6,000 times a month, as a whole nation’s children die, of easily preventable diseases, of malnutrition, of the cancerous after-effects of a war the Iraqi people did not choose. A whole nation of mothers borne down with the burden of loss. A whole nation of Sarah Paynes.
The MOD site is a complex of blank-faced, white marble buildings surrounded by an artificial lake. Ducks and swans play on the lake. What you see from the perimeter fence are the staircases. All the buildings point outwards from their mysterious centre in a series of fingers ending in a round, glass-fronted staircase. The buildings are startlingly uniform, disturbingly anonymous. Like ghosts or clouds they lack definition. Wherever you look, they appear the same. The same glassy-featured anonymity. The same gleaming uniformity. The same hollowness and mystery.
It was Sunday, and all the workers were at home. The lack of people only added to its sinister atmosphere.
Ornella said, “I can’t stand this place. Look at me, I’m shaking.” And she showed me her hands, which were, indeed, visibly shaking.
She’s Italian, and very passionate.
I was more interested in its practical use. “What’s it used for?” I asked, practically.
One of the other marchers said, “Procurement,” which had a pornographic ring at that moment.
“Procurement of what?” someone else said. And he put on a snivelling, nasal, dirty-old man’s voice. “Do you want to buy my dirty small-arms, mister?”
But you wonder at the meaning of all this. This huge nest of buildings, all marble and glass and blank-eyed defensiveness. The Ministry of Defence, they call it. The Ministry of Offence, more like. How many workers does it house, to do their daily procurement? How many people trudge these echoing stairwells with lists of requirements for this and that Military purpose, and all at the tax-payers expense; to provide the infrastructure to bomb children in their beds and farmers in their fields; to wipe out an entire nation for the socially embarrassing faux-pas of having ended up with a leader they didn’t choose, who momentarily forgot how to take orders.
Saddam Hussein was free to murder and terrorise and torture, to bomb and gas his own people, as long as he was a faithful client. As one Whitehouse spokesman put it: “He’s a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” But he’s the devil incarnate when he threatens Western interests by marching into Kuwait. And he’s a useful example to the rest of the world. “See? This is what we’ll do to you, if ever anyone questions our authority again.”
It is the politics of the Mafia, writ large. A protection racket on a grand scale. You smash up one client’s business to set an example for all the rest. That’ll teach them to stay in line.
And how much is all of this costing? How many millions? What would be the increase in the minimum wage if we scrapped all of this? How many hospitals could we build? How many play-parks? How many Mother-and-Toddler centres? How many affordable houses for the socially excluded?
The Welfare State is alive and well then. It provides for the welfare of the Mafia-inspired State arms industry.
There were 16 of us on the march. 18 if you counted the kids. 20 if you counted the dogs. 20 beating hearts on a jaunt around the MOD. But it makes you puzzle. I mean, everyone is up in arms about GM crops and the perceived health hazards they bring. But no one seems to care that Iraqi children drink poisoned water – a proven health hazard – because the British Air Force continues to fly bombing sorties to eradicate militarily threatening sewerage plants.
The truth is, no one knows. These things are not reported in the news.
Half way round the site (it was about a mile all round) we saw a security guard hiding in the trees. He was talking frantically into his walkie-talkie. You could see him clearly amongst the foliage.
“We can see you,” called Ornella, in a sing-song voice.
The man peeped out, and Ornella waved. “Hello!” she called. “Peek-a-boo!”
Later he was walking towards us on his rounds. He hadn’t seen us as yet. He turned a corner and caught a glimpse and then speedily turned around and walked the other way.
A couple of policemen drew up in their squad car. “What’s that you’re carrying,” they asked, winding down the windows, and indicating Ornella’s banner. We held it open for them. It said “6,000 children a month die in Iraq because of sanctions.”
“Oh. I see,” the policeman said. “Good on you.” And he winked.
Finally we got to our destination. It was on the main road by a roundabout with traffic lights, so people would have to stop and look at us. People were on their way to do their regular Sunday shopping. One of our group, an old lady, had already made herself comfortable. She was sat upon a picnic chair, with a flask of coffee and plenty of snacks.
I said, “I’m hungry Ornella,” watching the old lady tucking in.
She said, “yes, I always forget the practical things. I get so caught up with the emotion I forget about bringing sandwiches.”
We began draping banners. There was the main banner, the brightly coloured one the policemen had looked at, and another which said, “Stop Bombing Kids,” in black and white. Ornella had painted both of them. And there was a couple of visual display boards plastered with photographs of women with dead or dying children in their arms. The look of resignation on their faces – the look of hopeless despair, of abandonment, of loss – sang out in a kind of tired dirge, like an opera composed of all the misery in the world. Also, someone had interwoven foliage into portable sections of green galvanised wire fence to make a four figure number. “6,000” it said, quietly and evocatively. And people had lain flowers by the fence, and lit candles in jars, which flickered and blew out in the gusty wind.
Ornella had prepared some laminated A4 sheets, which she was tying to the fence. There were about 40 of them. They were the names of Iraqi children who had died, collected by Felicity Arbuthnot, one of the few journalists in Britain to continue visiting Iraq to report the story.
Sulenam Aged 6
Loukman Aged 7
Mortaza Aged 10
Older Brother Aged 13
Their Father And Grandfather
Killed In A Bombing Raid
A Baby Boy Called Hope
Died At 2 Hours Old
In Need Of Oxygen
Who Died Of Malnutrition
Aged 5 Months
Rahab Aged 7
Who Had Two Brothers
Sarouk Aged 4
And Ahmed Aged 11
All Of Them Died Of Cancer
Died Aged 17
Crying For Three Weeks
Because She Wanted To Live.
These are the simple human stories behind the spin and the news manipulation, behind the self-serving talk of Iraqi aggression and weapons of mass destruction (non-existent, of course). These are the stories you are not supposed to hear. Just ordinary kids, like Sarah Payne, murdered in the UK that same year, who wanted to live. Just ordinary kids dying for a cause which has nothing to do with them, nothing to do with their families. Kids of poor farmers and poor workers. Kids with mothers who suffered alongside them, silently watching as they died. Just kids.
What’s the difference between these kids and Sarah Payne? Really? Only that the newspapers thought it worthwhile to tell us, in gory detail, about the death of the one, a pretty, white English girl, while the others were considered of no value whatsoever.
After that we waited and watched traffic. Mostly people pointedly ignored us, driving by with pinched looks of disapproval, as if they thought they’d just caught a glimpse of a monkey fucking a horse by the roadside and would rather not look to find out. Those who did acknowledge our presence either honked their horns and did the thumbs-up, or honked their horns and did another sign. Like this. Hand held up appearing to grasp an invisible object, possibly long and round. A few deft flicks of the wrist in a repeated motion. I’ll leave you to work out what he meant.
One person rolled down his window.
“Bomb Iraq!” he shouted, holding his fist up, middle finger evocatively pointed, the blare of the horn swinging into a low note as the car swished by. At least he was acknowledging us.
I’m not sure what the percentage of those for us and against us was, exactly. I guessed about 1/3 for, and 2/3 against. Someone else thought 50:50. Some people were with us. It was more than I had expected.
A couple of teenage girls came over to talk. They were local kids, out on their bikes.
“What’s this for?” they asked.
“It’s in protest against sanctions against Iraq,” I told them.
“It’s to bring it to people’s attention,” Ornella said.
“You’ve certainly done that,” one of the girls said, indicating Ornella’s gorgeous banner. “Very striking.”
And Ornella continued to talk to them, telling them about the children who were dying, and the use of Depleted Uranium during the Gulf War (the cause of untold deaths): the way the Military and the Government were fighting a secret war against unarmed civilians; the bombing campaign; the protests; the MOD buildings and what they meant; the sinister truth at the heart of the British Establishment: giving them an extended political lecture by the roadside, showing them the awful photographs and the horrifying statistics ranged across the visual display boards, reading out the names of children on those fluttering laminated sheets, like bleached leaves blown against the fence.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you all this,” she said. “You’re a bit young.”
“But we’re fifteen,” the girls chorused. “Tell us more.”
And of all the people who saw us that day, these were the only ones to stop and ask why we were there. The only ones to ask serious and relevant questions. The only ones to show curiosity and concern. Two teenage girls on a bike ride. The future generation.
Maybe there’s hope for us all yet.
They said they lived in the area, and they often passed the site. There was a glass covered walkway over the road from the MOD to the car-park. They said they often saw policemen with machine guns walking over it.
“MOD police,” someone else said. “They’re the only police force in Britain to carry guns as a matter of routine.”
In the end I got so hungry I had to get a MacDonald’s from the trading estate across the road. MacDonalds and the MOD in close proximity, like happy bedmates. The burger cost 99p and tasted of soggy cardboard.
And after that we all packed up and went home, leaving the one newly painted banner between two lampposts. “Stop Bombing Kids!” it said.
“I wonder how long it will stay up there?” I asked.
“Hopefully till tomorrow,” Ornella said.
“Hopefully,” I said.
I read it in the Sunday Telegraph a few weeks later. It was blazoned across the front page beneath the masthead. Saddam Hussein is planning to send death-squads into the West disguised as belly-dancers, it said. Apparently women are less suspect than men, and belly dancing groups make a good cover. You wonder where they get their information from? But I believed every word. I’ll never trust a belly dancer again. I expect they’ll be carrying shopping bags full of raw sewerage to poison our water supplies. It’s about the only chemical weapon they have left.
As I said earlier: faulty information. Not the Jewish-Communist conspiracy these days. The Ba’ath Party and Belly-Dancers instead.
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