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A Sigh Heard Round the World

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls, And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.— William Blake, London

A friend asked me, since the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait project originated as my reaction to the criminal US attack on Iraq, how I felt about the escalating violence in Iraq. I wanted to answer that question but found myself overwhelmed — so many thoughts & feelings. I didn’t know where to begin. Rage, cynicism, shame, repulsion, grief, historical complexity. I think it best to begin where I did 13 years ago, with the grief. The burden of an old grief does not get lighter. Like black, it’s a color that contains all other colors. The ghosts of the dead, the suffering of the wounded and the traumatized do not weigh less — whether American soldiers or Iraqi children. They persist just as the failures of democracy persist. One’s failure to prevent that suffering, to do enough, hovers over one’s conscience. 13 years ago it was the heavy expectation of all those needless victims that bent me to paint portraits.

Today the victims are facts and statistics, hardly noted. When I go into schools and am asked why I began the portrait project, I have to start from scratch. Students across this country who were newborns or little children when the US attacked Iraq, have no knowledge of the war, have not been taught anything because there has been no accountability, no honest history. What can teachers say about that war when there has been no honest accounting? The same can be said about Vietnam. Tell the truth and a teacher gets accused of spouting personal opinion. That in itself — truth hidden from our young for political expediency — is cause for grief. Innocent of true history, their ignorance prepares them for unwitting participation in the next moral fiasco. I feel sad then having to explain about a government — their government — willfully lying to the people to instigate a war, and explaining about a complicit, corporate media making the war inevitable by failing to uphold its democratic obligation. Because I’m talking to students who are just leaning about the glories of constitutional democracy, my message makes me feel as though I am stealing their innocence. But these students, our children, our next generation of citizens and problem solvers, not having the benefit accountability, are ripe for renewed manipulation. It’s their idealistic patriotism that can be parlayed into killing and dying for profit and empire. Or, their subsequent cynicism translated into apathy.

My job with the portraits & the stories is to help them face the truth and want to engage in the struggle to hold this country up to its ideals. My grief is chosen. Like many Americans I could choose to accept the party line — Iraq was a mistake… well intentioned but flawed … time to get on with our lives…it’s their problem now. But we know that is a lie. It was not a mistake. It was an intentional crime. And I know that my grief is nothing compared to what our soldiers must feel carrying the burden of what they did and witnessed, especially as they wander in the labyrinth of moral dissonance, a dissonance caused by the conflict of risking everything for duty and sensing that the imperative of that duty was betrayed by their commanders. Cynicism can help one escape that labyrinth, but not for a person haunted by nightmarish deeds and sights. There is another grief, a more abstract one, but brutally concrete in its implications because it foretells the repetition of the criminality. A democracy without accountability is a facade, a smiley face stuck on a monster. For me the “hope and change” of having Obama elected was less about the redemptive moment of having our first African American president than it was about indicting our war criminals, a long overdue redemptive moment for the excesses of US foreign policy. Horrible crimes had been committed. The media, complicit in the commission of the war, were now complicit in the shirking of responsibility. But Obama, a Constitutional lawyer, said he would not prosecute because this was a moment when the US needed to look forward not back. If the law does not look back, it can never look forward. Law that doesn’t look back blinds itself to justice. All it sees then, and invites the powerful to see, is a free pass. One may agree that to prosecute the war criminals would have been politically divisive, perhaps tumultuous. But, consider the lives lost and money squandered by that negligence. Consider the damage done to the integrity of the country. Refusing to look back so that we might avoid upheaval is a tacit agreement to go forward in hypocrisy. Consider what we are teaching our children. Grieve for the notion of democracy. The great Yale historian David Blight talks about the necessary periodic upheavals our country must go through to correct its path. The Civil War was one. The New Deal another. We have now strayed so far from the truth of our own democratic and ethical touchstones that such a course correction is mandatory. Otherwise, we are likely to be just another empire collapsing under the weight of corruption and excess, hypocrisy and wealth disparity, debt and gridlock. Such collapse is not inevitable. But if citizens are going to demand and implement the kind of changes necessary, they have to know the truth and people have to be held accountable.

Currently Iraq is being attacked by ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (greater Syria). These fighters are characterized in our press as jihadists, terrorists, foreign fighters, extremists, fanatics, etc. Such characterizations create fear in direct proportion as they decrease rationality and compassion. However, I am not saying such characterizations are inaccurate. They are a foreign army on a mission, invading a country whose infrastructure was destroyed by the US and whose US supported government is beset by corruption, purposeful sectarian strife, and political chaos. Like us when we attacked Iraq, they have their justifications. The only real difference between their attack on Iraq and ours is that ISIS is pretty clear about why they are there — to create a fundamentalist Islamic state. Except in terms of the scale of the violence (ours being greater by magnitudes), the preemptive war of the US was nearly identical except that we lied about the reasons. We claimed self-protection. But we came in as extremists, foreign fighters, indiscriminate shock & awe terrorists, jihadists for the religion of empire, fanatics demanding obedience to the righteousness of power and adherence to the malignancy of our lie. Does that last sentence sound a little over the top? It’s meant to. Perhaps over a million Iraqi civilians were killed, another 4 to 5 million made into refugees, the county’s infrastructure destroyed, its environment polluted with depleted uranium, and, leaving the country in the control corrupt puppets, we walked away. The crimes committed were not merely against Iraq, against the loyalty of US soldiers, and against democracy. The crimes were against education, the environment, sane energy policy, the building of sustainable economy — against history itself and the shape of the future — all the essential priorities that have been ignored. Colin Powell, as complicit as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the rest of them in the guilt of Iraq, at least had the honesty to say, “You break it, you own it,” implying if we destroy the country, we have the obligation to repair it. We did, but we can’t. We have neither means nor legitimacy to fix this problem. We fostered chaos and inherit the whirlwind. How pathetic that our offer of help now is drones and air strikes. We offer to compound the misery and chaos. We poisoned the waters with the hubris of our violence and now offer another drink. Just as there has been no accountability for the intentional misleading of this country to war, there is none for the wreckage we left behind.

So, in terms of this project, Americans Who Tell the Truth, how to proceed? One of the points we make is that if we don’t correctly name the problem, we can’t fix it. We couldn’t do anything about civil rights without having the conversation about the structures, history and psychology of racism. It took a long list of persistent Americans to school us in that conversation. Chief Joseph, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, W.E. B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Michelle Alexander and so many more are our teachers. And we can’t counteract the power and profit of massive environmental degradation and exploitation without making corporations pay for the ramifications of what they do. Environmental and economic activists from Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold to Rachel Carson, Sandra Steingraber, Bill McKibben, and David Korten have helped us see the light on these issues. And, of course, the answer isn’t simply regulated corporations. The problem is much deeper — in understanding how to bring every aspect of our lives and economy into harmony with nature. We will never end the moral idiocy of war until we look at the power of the profiteers. No one, ever, should profit from war. If there were no profit in killing, diplomacy might just work. We need to listen to and read carefully the works of David Swanson, John Hunter, Paul Chappell, Jane Addams, Frances Crowe. War is not inevitable. The sigh of William Blake’s hapless, universal soldier has run for centuries down palace and White House walls, so long that many people assume it must be human nature. It isn’t; we’ve been educated to think that, and can be educated to resist war and embrace peace. If, in the World Series, we discovered the umpires had been bribed to shout “Ball” when the pitch was a strike, we would demand an investigation. And the owners would agree. Their profit depends on the basic assumption that the game is fair. For a long time now Americans have known that our political and economic game is not fair. Again and again we ask the culprits to investigate themselves. We can’t keep playing this game. The implications are too profoundly disturbing. What has happened to Iraq carries the same insistent warning as Hurricane Katrina or a giant ice shelf breaking off the Antarctic — the status quo is insupportable. The systems we have entrusted to fix the problems and care for the future are incapable of doing that job. I think that as citizens we should boycott the political process until all the money is out of it. A principled boycott expresses democracy when voting can’t. Our war criminals need to be prosecuted. Our teachers need to teach true history so our schools show respect instead of contempt for our students. Students leaving school inculcated with the myths of American exceptionalism are as dangerous to themselves and to the world as our soldiers indoctrinated with the myths of our righteous invincibility. These myths lead to more grief. There was a time when I thought I would paint portraits for a few years & then find another way forward in my art. I now realize there is, for me, no other way. Several years ago I painted the great Chicano civil rights leader, activist and teacher, Carlos Munoz Jr. He often says, “In the struggle is the victory.” When I first heard him say that, I don’t think I understood what he meant. It seemed a paradox.

This is what it means for me now: The struggle is never won. Neither, if we keep on, is it lost. The forces of injustice and corruption and power are persistent. In our fight against them we must be too, otherwise we have lost. In the struggle, in the camaraderie of the struggle, is the balm for our grief and the only hope that the moral arc of the universe will bend toward justice.

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