OF BLOOD AND OIL

– one reaction to the first Gulf War, 1991

This is not so much a report about an involvement in a protest as it is an observation and evaluation of one. My hope is that by now reason and calm have broken out between America and Iraq instead of war. And yet I fear we’re watching bloody images of men and women on both sides slaughtering each other over the price of a barrel of oil.

“I count thirty-four,” he said. “Not what we were hoping for.” He was tall, middle-aged, with red-blonde hair. He wore blue jeans, a heavy beige sweater and dirty running shoes. I didn’t get his name but he feared the military buildup in the Middle East even more than he feared the one in Vietnam. He thought it would make peaceful countries around the world enemies and divide opinion in the States as much, if not more, than had Vietnam. “All U.S. college and university affiliations in Rome, other institutions and friends, friends of friends…were told about this. It may take another terrible war to get them thinking again about what’s important.”

The reports from US and European news media were mostly negative. Neither Bush nor Hussein seemed willing to back down from the threats and counter threats they’d been making as the chief representatives of their countries, and war seemed a certainty on January 15th, the first day United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 authorizes the use of force. Word was being passed along to Americans that if you’re planning to return to the States then you should do it before the UN deadline. American institutions in Italy had already been threatened with attacks in the event of a war.

This protest by Americans living in Rome was held in conjunction with others in Paris, London, Bonn and Geneva. It took place across the street from the American Embassy on Monday, January 7, beginning at noon and ending at two p.m. It was warm, the sun bright; perfect weather. The protestors walked in a circle on the sidewalk on Via Veneto. Factoring in the noise from the putt putt engines of Fiats and Nissans and motorini, it was just within shouting distance of the tall, black iron embassy gates, where carabinieri and polizia protected it from intrusion. Some of the protestors held posters with the expected slogans: NO MORE VIETNAMS; SAY NO WAR IN THE GULF. They broke into a chant now and then: “No blood for oil” was the most popular.

The protest’s organizer was Susan L, an energetic and cheerful woman, who is also a medical doctor. She seemed undisturbed by the small gathering. She distributed leaflets, spoke to the few newspaper and television reporters, and talked to any interested passersby about the importance of showing that opinion in the States and around the world was growing against war.

She handed a leaflet to me. “This outlines our position,” she said. I read: “We condemn as much as anyone the Iraqi ‘annexation’ of Kuwait, and we are no supporters of Saddam Hussein. We support the economic sanctions… We are particularly alarmed at the suddenness with which the military buildup was undertaken… For these reasons we oppose the massive military presence in Kuwait…” And finally, these demands for the President and Congress:

  1. Conduct no military offensive, regardless of the January 15th deadline, and make sure our forces are not provoked into drastic unilateral action.
  2. Continue to support those sanctions voted by the United Nations that fall short of military action.
  3. NEGOTIATE! Seek a diplomatic solution to the current crises that can be supported by our allies. It’s not too late!

“Why are you here?” I asked a short man with brown hair. He wore a gray parka and held out a copy of the leaflet to the cameras, photographers and those walking past. “I don’t think thousands of young people should be killed because two men are having a conflict of egos,” he said.

“That’s been a fact throughout history,” the woman behind him in line said. She was well-dressed, mostly in black, and carried a poster above her head: DON’T ATTACK IRAQ.

A few questions formed I didn’t bother to ask. Why have there always been leaders and a great many people to follow them whenever and wherever they’re asked to go, even if they’re poor and twenty and it’s to their deaths? Why is it leaders, no matter how good or evil, are recorded extensively in the history we read and are taught while the many who build the civilizations they’re given credit for are referred to in only a few lines? The reason, it seemed in that moment, was that the many had succumbed to the egos and ambitions of a few instead of following what was in their own hearts and thoughts.

History has been dissected and analyzed by some of the best minds of each generation, but any lessons or insights that might be drawn from that knowledge seem to go unheeded during confrontations such as the one between America and Iraq. It seemed that if there was one lesson that could be learned it was that individuals and individual events have a will and destiny of their own beyond history’s influence. This confrontation, and the individuals involved in it, were no different. How it’s resolved will depend on those in positions to say yes and no for all. Most I spoke with on this day felt both sides would say yes to war.

It’s inevitable humans will continue to confront and combat one another for power, wealth and pleasure. It seems less likely that they’ll unite to prevent such occurrences.

No one from the embassy came out to acknowledged the protesters, and that seemed expected. At the iron gate carabinieri held their fingers on the triggers of automatic weapons. In the Saudi Arabian desert over 600,000 troops and thousands of tons of hardware, two-thirds of both provided by America, were assembled for the purposes of winning a contest of nerves, or, more likely, a war. Across the street from the American Embassy in Rome thirty-four protestors, who didn’t think the troops or the hardware should be there for the reasons they were, walked in a tight, uneven circle.

When it was over Ms. L told the group, now circled around her, “There’s another march on the 12th. I hope to see you there.”

(1991)

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