Wendy Call
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This essay was published in the 2008 Jack Straw Writers Program anthology, and reprinted in the Fall 2008 issue of the literary journal Raven Chronicles.

The Last Five Years

Wendy Call


 

1.

On February 15, 2003, I joined a human river between skyscraper banks, found myself carried along by the crowd, then stopped by it. There were simply too many people, surrounded by too many police, for any of us to move of our own volition. Frigid air hung over us as we shivered, shoulder to shoulder, hour after hour, hefting signs.

Bush’s war is gonna fail, kinda like he did at Yale.
How did our oil get under their sand?
Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot.
Let’s bomb Texas, it has oil, too.
I asked for universal health care and all I got was this lousy Stealth bomber!

Only later would we learn that there were three or four hundred thousand of us there on the Manhattan streets, yelling against the war. Only later would we know that people in one hundred countries had joined us, many millions of them: Iraqi toddlers in Babylon holding peace signs, a man in Karachi waving a Che Guevara portrait, Brazilian nuns in white habits on the Copacabana beach, three million Italians marching in Rome. Only later would we realize that all those people in all those countries constituted the largest anti-war protest in the history of the world.

The mass of hope and fury flowed and eddied through Manhattan streets; for six hours I gave myself over to the will of the crowd. Late that afternoon, the river split into tributaries, descending to the subway, climbing back onto buses, folding up signs and going home for the night. Someone yelled “To Times Square!” and I joined one thousand people headed in that direction. Compared to the human scale of that day, our group felt small as we marched to one of the country’s busiest intersections. We poured into the eight lanes, our chants becoming screams, our voices drowning out engines and horns. We brought the cars and buses and taxis to a sudden stop; if only foreign policy could be turned back as easily as Times Square traffic.

On any other day, I would stand on the sidewalk at Times Square and watch the buses and vans and limos rush by, liquid-fast, and know that stepping into that current of metal and noise would kill me.

The largest anti-war protest in the history of the world did not stop the Iraq War. Did it matter at all? If all of us, tens of millions of us, had stayed home on that February day in 2003, would more countries have sent their soldiers to Iraq? Would we have invaded Iran by now? Would even more people have died?
For more than twenty years I have marched against wars as I have wrestled with the paradox: individual action is the antithesis of collective action, yet collective action is only the accumulation of many individual actions.

2.

In 1991, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday was the deadline for war. It seemed a particular insult. George Bush, Sr. decided that Iraq’s army had to withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, or we would bomb. On January 14, I walked through Seattle neighborhoods with tens of thousands of others. We shared a simple message: no war. I went to bed that night thinking, If fifty thousand people marched in Seattle, there must have been hundreds of thousands in New York. I awoke in the morning to the radio announcer telling me that Seattle’s anti-war march had been the largest in the country. Not long after that, U.S. planes began dropping bombs.

I spent the most of the following days in front of Seattle’s Federal Building. In the midst of a blur of marching and chanting and press-release writing, my father sent me a letter, telling me the Gulf War was “a necessary war.” The week of January 15, he wrote, the quote-of-the-week in his date book was from Dr. King: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Those words, my father said, summed up our reasons for invading Iraq. I wrote back to my father. Rage clutched me, but I tried to stick to the facts. I explained to my father what he should have already known: Dr. King had used those words to explain his opposition to the war in Vietnam. I doubted he would approve of his words being used to justify any war.

In 2003, as we began another war with Iraq, my father didn’t quote Martin Luther King to me. Even before this war started, my father and other military retirees in his circle of friends referred to it as “an inevitable quagmire.”

3.

For twenty-three years my father served in the U.S. Navy; the Vietnam and Gulf Wars bracketed his service. He spent all his years stationed stateside; he is a veteran, but not a war veteran. His older brothers fought in World War II, his younger brother in Vietnam.

Four days after D-Day, my Uncle Jerry waded through blood-reddened waves and climbed over piles of bodies to reach Omaha Beach in Normandy, then fought his way across France, across Belgium, across the Rhine River, all the way to Berlin. He was 21 years old. When he returned home to Michigan, he rarely spoke of it.

In 2000, my father invited his older brother to visit Normandy with him, to see that beach once again. My Uncle Jerry declined; he had no desire to travel through the landscape of those memories. In the end, I made the trip with my father. I accompanied him grudgingly: I believed Normandy had nothing to do with me; the idea of war tourism aggravated me. Why should I care?

Then, I stood at Omaha Beach and looked at the land undulating toward the churning waters of the British Channel. I tried to imagine the carnage that fifty-six years had erased. I climbed in and out of the grassy bowls of old bombing scars – what fifty-six years could not erase. Two generations after the bombs fell, the earth still tells the story of the war. The ground on which I grew up doesn’t bear these sorts of scars. Our war wounds mar specific tracts of land, heavy the hearts of certain individuals. The rest of us hardly notice, the landscapes of our homes and our lives remain unscathed. My closest connection to an Iraq War veteran is my Uncle Jerry’s grandson-in-law, a young man I have never met.

4.

On the one thousandth, eight hundredth, and twenty-sixth day of the Iraq War, George Bush marked the fifth anniversary by calling the war noble, necessary and just.  Which of those words describes the deaths of something close to one million Iraqi civilians? Or the deaths of four thousand U.S. soldiers? Which of those words describes my own life, lived in tandem with this war?

On March 19, 2008, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, I did not march. Few did. I thought of the war, as I do every day. I went to work and I sat down to dinner, as I do every day. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Iraqi civilians died, as they do every day. We spent 720 million dollars on the war, as we do every day.

The New York Times published a timeline called “Iraq 5 Years In: An overview of major events in the conflict.” It did not mention February 15, 2003.