In his recent Oval Office address, President Obama marked the “end” of combat operations in Iraq: “We have met our responsibility. Now, it is time to turn the page.”
Not so fast. No doubt many Americans would love to forget the whole thing, but, annoyingly, the Iraq War has etched itself onto our history. Indeed, it has struck the heart of both American and Iraqi life: more than 4,400 Americans dead; at least 100,000 Iraqis dead; more than 32,000 Americans wounded; at least two million Iraqis forced to flee their country. It is difficult for me to comprehend such calamity, much less process, file, and forget.
In the U.S., blame and guilt over the made-in-America disaster have contributed to political paralysis and cultural division that will not pass quickly or easily. Frank Rich reviews Obama’s speech in the New York Times: “‘Our unity at home was tested,’ (Obama) said, as if all those bygones were now bygones and all the toxins unleashed by this fiasco had miraculously evaporated once we drew down to 50,000 theoretically non-combat troops.” Before we can banish the war to the forgotten past, we must first stop to be present with its tragedy. We must first take a long, hard look at the war’s toll and its political and cultural enablers-and then begin to repair and reform.
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Art offers one way to be present with war and its realities. In the recent Minneapolis exhibit, “The Art of Conflict: Iraqi and American Art in Dialogue,” Iraqi and American artists (including veterans of the Iraq War) looked at war and its effects through the lens of their personal experiences. Images ranged from destroyed mosques to disfigured faces, from a bloodied back to a twisted “withdrawal” roadmap, from abstract blotches of color to a woman holding a dead child. In their individual works and in their dialogue, the artists sought to interface with the tragedy of war. They did not seek an easy resolution.
An installment piece in the show, “Look into my heart: am I only collateral damage?” consisted of a clear, plastic table filled with blood-colored liquid and, at its center, a magnifying glass peering into a translucent heart. The creator, American artist Jane Powers, says the piece attempts “to foreground, re-humanize and create compassion for (innocent individuals killed by war) and thus draw attention to this tragic cost of war.” There is no vain attempt to process and progress beyond the war. The voices of collateral damage demand that we pause, if only for a moment, to listen.
Ikhlas Muhassan Abbas is part of that collateral damage. She is a young Iraqi teacher who lost her left leg and right foot to an errant missile in a battle between U.S. forces and the Mehdi Army in August of 2004. She became confined to a wheelchair and lost her teaching job.
In Ikhlas’ words,
“I suffered from pain and long periods of time in the operating room. I had 12 surgeries in which finally my left leg had to be amputated, as well as my right foot. After all the suffering and pain, I received prosthetic limbs but they are not convenient and I am unable to move or live with them… I am in the peak of my life yet I have tasted the bitterness of life too much. I need good artificial limbs to live as a good citizen. I still have so much internal potential which has not been invested yet, despite the dreadful incident. I request that you not allow this to pass unnoticed…”
A supporter of my organization, the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP), wrote to me recently about the danger that this war and its handling have “de-humanized” us, that we have sacrificed our humanity to the grandiosity of war. At the very least, we have tethered our American identity to the personal and collective tragedies of war.
Although the term “reconciliation” is ambiguous, it is perhaps an apt descriptor for what our country now needs. It is a fundamentally relational term; it is about repairing broken relationships. It starts with acknowledging our responsibility for the war’s toll, and then requires bold action. IARP provides opportunities for such action, including partnering with Iraqis to install water sanitation systems at schools in Iraq or supporting Iraqi artists and peacemakers, such as the Muslim Peacemaker Teams.
Reconciliation is not a quick fix, because the legacy of war defies quick fixes. Another artist from “The Art of Conflict” wrote that her work in the exhibit intends “to visually return the war to the forefront – to portray a communal sense of loss, ambiguity, and sorrow.” As Americans, we will be unable to “turn the page” on the Iraq War until we begin to live honestly with that loss and sorrow, repair our relationship with Iraqis, and reform-with a resolve born of war’s human tragedy-the cultural and political systems that enabled the Iraq War.
On Saturday, September 18, Ikhlas arrived in Minneapolis, where she will receive an artificial leg and physical therapy, thanks to generous American and Iraqi donors. She will be able to walk again and resume her teaching career, God willing. Yet there can be no tidy forgetting of the Iraq War for Ikhlas, just as there can be none for the U.S. We all want to turn the page, Mr. President, but it’s going to take some time.