Sunday, October 23, 2011

Post #12 - Martyrdom

When Ali, Hassan and Hossein were killed, they became, for Shi'ites, the foremost Muslim martyrs. One of the holiest occasions in the Shi'ite calendar (Ashura) is, to this day, a commemoration of the death – the martyrdom – of Hussein. As Reza Aslan puts it: "For the Shi'ah, the Muharram rituals signify a moral choice; they are a public statement that, in the words of one participant, 'if we had been there at Karbala [the site, on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq, of the battle in which Hussein died in 680 CE] we would have stood with him and shed our blood and died with him.' " According to an Indian Muslim writer, Syed Salman Chishty, the significance of Karbala is today embodied in non-violence. In a January 2008 article, he quotes his countryman, Mahatma Gandhi as saying, "I learned from Hussain, how to be oppressed yet victorious." A Shi'ite believer in Tehran was quoted in another article as saying, "When they [the United States] bully us about our nuclear program, they use their might to impose their will upon us. Like Imam Hussein, we will stand up against oppression."

For modern Iranians, the term "shahid" (martyr) most frequently means one those, mostly young men, who gave their lives during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Their age, and the ways in which they died are off-putting for many Americans partly because we have never, as a nation, faced a war for national survival. A comparison, though, could be made with the way many Virginians feel about the schoolboy cadets of the Virginia Military Academy who left their books and games and marched out to battle in support of the Confederacy. For Southerners, that was a battle for survival, and those youngsters are held up by many as brave martyrs for the cause (I grew up in Virginia and received the Southern version of the War Between the States with my milk and cookies).

Memorial display Tehran's main cemetery (Martyrs Section)
David D. Perlmutter is political communications head at the prestigious Manship School of Communication of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where I have helped organize meetings for international journalists. He has written, “A basic definition of the mass killing of teenagers by other teenagers as directed by their elders.” During the bloody, eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, thousands of boys, aged 9 to 19, went into battle ill-trained and ill-equipped, leading the charge on difficult military targets, or clearing minefields simply by running into them. They literally “laid down their lives” for their fellow Iranians. Many of them are interred in a vast cemetery outside Tehran, called Behesht-e-Zahra, which I have visited. Unlike our own armed forces cemeteries with their serried ranks of nearly identical white marble markers, this cemetery is a collection of highly-individualized memorials. Each of the dead lies almost shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellows. Their memorials, sheltered by corrugated fiberglass canopies, are lovingly maintained by the families of the departed. Each tombstone is inscribed with name and dates of birth and death, and carries a photo-etching of the person buried beneath, like the head-shot stapled onto a young graduate's resume. A glass-front cabinet holds memorabilia -- a high-school yearbook, a candle, photos of the young man with his friends, a medal earned in a swimming tournament. Fresh flowers adorn each grave, bringing to mind the cliché: “felled in the flower of his youth.”

This was not a war that Iran had sought. Their adversary was well-equipped by the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, including access to city-smashing missiles and chemical weapons like the ones which Saddam later used on his own citizens. Without these youths' sacrifice, one could ask, might Iran have become an eastern province of Iraq? Would there then ever have been a Gulf War or a U.S. invasion of Iraq? History does not allow “do-overs”, but it begs us to learn lessons. As George Santayana so famously said, “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.”

Orwell said, "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind." Much has spoken and written about the "facts" on which U.S. involvement in Iraq was based. Here is more of the interview with Barry Lando (author and former 60 Minutes producer), done by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman. It deals with U.S. aid to Iraq during the 1980's; I quote it at length because it is essential for us to understand what led up to the present impasse:

   Goodman: Didn’t senators at that time, including Robert Dole, go meet with Saddam Hussein?
   Lando: Right. Senators from the agricultural states went to meet with Saddam, because the US agricultural producers, rice farmers, wheat farmers, were supplying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grain to Saddam, and they wanted that to continue.
   Goodman: This was at a time when they understood that he had used chemical weapons.
   Lando: Absolutely. Right. They had reports about what a tyrant he was. But first Reagan and then [G.H.W.] Bush wanted to continue US relations with Iraq. They saw Iraq as a fantastic market for the United States. It had the petroleum wealth...and they thought that U.S. businesses, high-tech corporations, wheat farmers, rice farmers, all could take advantage of these fantastic opportunities [in Iraq's rebuilding after war with Iran]. There were others in the [Bush] administration...who were arguing, “No, this guy, he’s a bad actor, and we should have nothing to do with him.” But George Bush, Sr. and James Baker pushed all along to keep good relations with Saddam and to have hundreds of millions of dollars of loans made to Saddam, so that he could continue to buy, purchase from the outside world, including very sophisticated weapons or material that could be used to construct weapons of mass destruction. There were Pentagon warnings...saying the Iraqis are buying material from us that can be used for weapons of mass destruction, and Bush and Baker made sure that those sales continued to go through, despite those warnings...
   Goodman: ...You're talking about the Bush/Reagan years. Let's go back a little further, ... because in 1983, 1984, there's [sic] the two famous visits of Donald Rumsfeld, then the envoy for Reagan and Bush to Saddam Hussein, shaking his hand. Talk about what was known at that time and what he was doing there.
   Lando: Well, in 1983 the Iraqis were already using chemical weapons against Iranian troops... They had been at war with [Iran] for about three years. And the Iranians were using kind of mass formations of child warriors running at the Iraqi lines, and so they found chemical weapons were quite effective, the Iraqis did. And the US knew this. And at the time, Iran asked for the United Nations to investigate the use of these illegal weapons. And the United States, I think England as well, helped block any attempt by the United Nations to investigate this. This is back in 1983. This is five years before they used it in Halabja [where many Kurdish were killed and injured].
And at the same time, Donald Rumsfeld was sent, as you say, by Ronald Reagan as a special envoy to talk with Saddam Hussein, because the US didn't have relations with Iraq at that point. They had cut them a few years earlier over the whole Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and that Saddam was apparently supporting terrorists, so the United States had cut diplomatic relations with Iraq. Rumsfeld went there to see if they could warm things up, because the United States wanted to help Iraq. They didn't want Iran to win the war. Also they wanted Saddam's help for political problems that they were having in Lebanon at the time.
So Rumsfeld went there, and he had a warning, a long briefing paper, from the State Department. One of the things concerned Saddam's use of chemical weapons. Rumsfeld talked about that with Saddam's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, but when he met with Saddam over an hour, he talked about all kinds of other subjects, but he didn't bring up the subject of chemical weapons at all.
And so, five or six years later, when Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds...the man who became known as Chemical Ali [Ali Hassan Majeed, sentenced to death in Baghdad in 2007], said, “The rest of the world? Who cares about the rest of the world if we use chemical weapons?” In other words, he already knew, in their experience with the Iranians, that the world would say nothing if they continued to use chemical weapons against their own people. And that, in fact, was the case.
...What has amazed me is that the press, particularly the American press, has made not a mention of American complicity in these crimes. Frankly, I don't understand why.... had [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower and [John Foster] Dulles [operating in the region with] the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 in Iran. Then you had John Kennedy: in 1963, you had a nationalist ruler in Iraq, Qasim, and Kennedy's CIA and the Egyptians, who also didn't like him, joined together and they helped organize a coup in Iraq that overthrew Qasim. The Baath Party...Saddam Hussein was then a junior member of the Baath Party -- came into power.
They were -- the US liked them at the time. They were secular, strongly anti-communist, anti-Soviet. So they were seen as allies by the CIA. When they took over in 1963, the CIA supplied them with lists of suspected communists, militants, left-wing intellectuals, professionals, to be taken care of. They were picked up, tortured, and many of them were killed. We're talking about hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. Saddam Hussein then was one of the young torturers at that time...the Baath fell out of power again in 1968. There was another coup, and they came back in, and Saddam became the power behind the throne. It took him ten years to become formally head of Iraq, of the government in Iraq, but for most of that time he was already seen as the man behind the throne. He ran the secret police, and he used Stalinist methods to take over. He was a great admirer of Stalin. So in 1979, Saddam formally became the leader of Iraq.
   Goodman: President Carter's role here?
   Lando: ... Khomeini came to power [and] was seen as an enemy of the United States, which he was. And you had the hostages taken...from the embassy in Iran. And so, Carter...wanted to do anything he could to weaken Khomeini. So did the other states of the Gulf. The Saudis, the Kuwaitis were terrified of Khomeini and what he could represent to their hold on that region, because Khomeini viewed them as dictators, and he was for the national -- taking over the oil, petroleum resources of those countries, as well, not for himself, but for the people of those countries. He represented a major threat.
Jimmy Carter encouraged Saddam, via the Saudis, to invade Iran. That started a war, which lasted for eight years, longest war of the 20th century, resulted in at least a million people dying on both sides. And, of course, the United States, other Western countries, Soviets, sold arms, continued to support the Iraqis during that period, and when it looked, though, that the Iraqis might win -- because they didn't want either side to win, really -- they also sold arms to the Iranians, as well. So the battle kind of went back and forth for eight years, with many countries selling arms to both sides. And the United States, in fact, even gave intelligence aid to both sides. And in the end, as I said, a million people died because of that war.
   Goodman: Gave intelligence on where Iranian soldiers were, to be gassed by Saddam Hussein.
   Lando: Exactly. The US gave satellite information, more to the Iraqis, enabling them to target Iranian troop concentrations, even though the US knew that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons... [to be continued]

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