In March 2003, while most of us observed the United States military’s devastating “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq on television, Kathy Kelly was in Baghdad, experiencing the bombing firsthand. She had gone to Iraq — and not for the first time — to show her support for the suffering Iraqi people. Her most recent book, Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison (CounterPunch, AK Press), was written mainly in small hotels in Iraq and Jordan and in U.S. prisons and jails, where Kelly served time for civil disobedience. She writes that she felt sadness and anger about the bombing, “but also a familiar sense of determination not to let the bombs have the last word.”
Kelly’s parents met in London in 1944, when that city was under bombardment by the Nazis. Her Irish American father, Frank Kelly, was a U.S. serviceman and former member of the Christian Brothers religious order. Her mother, Catherine, had been born an indentured servant in Ireland and later worked in a children’s hospital in England. Kathy was born in 1952, one of six children. Her family home was small, and as a teenager she slept on the living-room couch. The Kellys lived on the southwest side of Chicago, where racial tensions ran high. Kathy attended classes each day at both a private Catholic school and a nearby public school, as part of a “shared time” program. The halls of the public school were sometimes guarded by police with dogs, and it was common for fights to break out between black and white students.
It was at Catholic Saint Paul High School that Kelly discovered the writings of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who advocated nonviolence and encouraged fellow Christians to live according to their beliefs, even at great personal risk. Kelly became determined never to be a passive bystander to injustice and violence.
Kelly received a BA from Loyola University in Chicago and a master’s degree in religious education from the Chicago Theological Seminary. During her graduate studies, she became dissatisfied with just writing about poverty and moved to a poor Chicago neighborhood where the Catholic Worker Movement sponsored a soup kitchen and shelter. In 1982 she married activist Karl Meyer, who challenged her to take part in protests against draft registration.
Kelly decided to devote herself full time to peacemaking after a 1985 trip to Nicaragua, where she met the victims of the U.S.–supported Contra rebels. She went on to visit Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, and later Bosnia and Haiti, participating in antiwar actions in each country. Kelly has also been a war-tax resister for twenty-three years.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the United Nations, under pressure from the U.S., imposed on Iraq the most comprehensive economic sanctions in modern history. Eight years later a UNICEF report estimated that half a million Iraqi children had died as a result of the sanctions. In 1995 Kelly and a group of other activists formed Voices in the Wilderness (VITW.org), which openly broke the sanctions by delivering aid to the Iraqi people. Since then Voices in the Wilderness has organized seventy trips to Iraq to bring medical relief supplies, and Kelly has been to Iraq twenty-seven times.
Nonviolent civil disobedience has landed Kelly in jail on many occasions. In one instance she was arrested for planting corn on top of a nuclear-missile silo and served nine months in a maximum-security prison. In November 2003 Kelly was arrested during a protest at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas), in Fort Benning, Georgia. The institute has been accused of training South American military and law-enforcement personnel in techniques of terror and torture. Kelly, along with twenty-seven other activists, was arrested for trespassing and spent three months in Pekin Federal Prison Camp, where prisoners earn $1.15 an hour or less making armored plates for U.S. military vehicles.
Kelly teaches in Chicago-area community colleges and high schools, and she continues her patient and resolute opposition to violence. When she traveled to Baghdad before the start of the current war with Iraq, she ended up extending compassion not only to Iraqis terrified by the bombing, but also to U.S. soldiers. As the marines arrived in the Iraqi capital to begin the military occupation that is now more than two years old, she and other members of the Iraq Peace Team offered the tired and thirsty soldiers water and fresh dates and listened to their stories of crossing the desert and of the violence they’d experienced.
In Other Lands Have Dreams, Kelly writes, “One of the greatest gifts in life is to find a few beliefs that you can declare with passion and then to have the freedom to act on them. For me, those beliefs are quite simple: that nonviolence and pacifism can change the world, that the poor should be society’s highest priority, that people should love their enemies, and that actions should follow conviction, regardless of inconvenience.”
The first time I talked to Kathy Kelly was in 2003, at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California. She had just returned from Iraq and seemed simultaneously filled with relief to have survived the massive bombardment of Baghdad and stricken with regret over having left behind the friends she had made there. We met again in May 2005 at a private home near Salinas, California. Her eyes shone with a fierce compassion as she described holding dying Iraqi children in her arms, encountering U.S. soldiers as they invaded Iraq, and going to jail for committing nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.
Malkin: You’ve written, “Where you stand determines what you see.” When you were standing in Baghdad during the “shock and awe” bombing campaign, what did you see?
Kelly: We were about a hundred yards from a presidential palace that had been built for one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. So what we heard was intense and terrifying bombardment. Morning, noon, and night, U.S. planes were bombing not only that palace, but some government buildings close by. Thankfully nothing else around us was hit. Following the bombing, just when we had started to exhale a bit, came the looting, and then the occupation. It was a very dramatic and intense time. Every day that one survived felt like a precious gift.
Malkin: I am curious to hear about your encounter with U.S. soldiers arriving in Baghdad.
Kelly: It was an unusual day. There had been a lot of confusion that morning as to how close U.S. troops were to Baghdad. Then, when the soldiers appeared, a group of them positioned themselves immediately outside our hotel. We wanted to go out and greet them with our banners that said, COURAGE FOR PEACE, NOT FOR WAR, and WAR = TERROR, but the hotel owners feared they would be persecuted if we did. So we hung the banners from a second-floor balcony instead.
When the soldiers saw us, they looked around for our spaceship! How had these Americans turned up right in the middle of Baghdad? They called up to us, “Who are you?” and we told them we were a peace team.
“Where are you from?” they asked, and we answered: Chicago, New York, Boston.
Then one of them called up, “Are you a Red Sox fan?”
That kind of broke the ice. It was clear that these men were hot, tired, and thirsty, and we had many six-packs of bottled water lined up in my room. So three of us — a seventy-two-year-old woman from Verona, New York; a young South Korean woman; and I — took some water down to the troops and mingled with them. I went back up to fetch a box of Iraqi dates. The soldiers were quite grateful for the dates. They hadn’t had anything but military rations for some time, and most of them had never seen fresh dates before.
I had many conversations with soldiers over the next several days. Some expressed remorse for the killing and the bloodshed they’d been involved in. Quite a few said that as soon as they got home, they were getting out of the military. One young man came up and asked, “Will you pray with me?” Another wanted to sit down with us and hear our side of the story.
Soldiers would come to our hotel late at night to watch the BBC, and they’d tell us about their trip from Basra to Baghdad. There had been times when they’d feared for their lives, and also times when they weren’t sure if they were shooting at civilian or military targets. As one GI put it, “We just had to shoot everybody.” He added, “I sure hope that everything I saw won’t register in here,” and he pointed to his head.
Overhearing our conversation, an officer told us not to blame the enlisted men for what had happened. He was in charge, he said, and had made hasty decisions, and he would have many sleepless nights over the civilians who’d been killed.
One soldier said he purposefully jammed his gun so that he wouldn’t have to shoot. Another said he was glad that his job was to bring up prisoners at the rear, because he didn’t want to kill anybody. He had seen some of his fellow marines shoot a mother and father who didn’t stop their car at a checkpoint, killing them and leaving the young boy in the back seat orphaned. The soldier said they could have just shot out the tires.
We also heard from some of them that they hadn’t joined the marines to go to war. They were just looking for respect, or a way to meet financial responsibilities and get a decent education. So any sense I’d had of the marines as a sort of swaggering, self-satisfied group quickly disappeared. Maybe they behaved like victors in front of the media, but they didn’t do it with us.
Malkin: What kind of involvement did you have with journalists in Baghdad?
Kelly: It was very different from the first Gulf War. The only journalists who remained in Baghdad during that war were Peter Arnett and his CNN crew and a handful of Canadian Palestinians. In 2003 there were 750 journalists housed in the Palestine Hotel, immediately across the street from ours.
One night Robert Fisk, the Middle Eastern correspondent for the British newspaper the Independent, was having dinner with his wife at my hotel. There was no electricity, so we were all sitting around by candlelight. The bombing outside was fierce. Fisk would poke his head out now and then to assess the situation. Everyone was wondering: would he really risk walking back to his hotel in this intense bombardment? Finally he came back and told his wife that it was time to make a run for it. And she said, in a dignified manner, “Well, all right, Robert, but you’ll have to hold my hand.” And off they went.
The journalists didn’t have any inclination to report on us, and that was fine. I don’t think that we were the story. Quite a few of them did ask us where we thought the stories were, but in general the journalists didn’t like to fraternize with peace teams, because they needed to preserve the appearance of objectivity.
After the arrival of the “embedded” journalists — the ones who traveled with the troops, rather than stay in a central location — there was a huge influx of reporters roaming around. They had a somewhat limited idea, I felt, of what qualified as a story. What troubled me was the ready emphasis on stories about atrocities committed by Saddam’s regime: for instance, a woman who had been raped by one of Saddam’s security people while in prison and had given birth to a child. That is a horrible reality, and it ought to aggrieve people who read about it, but what about the five hundred thousand children who died grotesque deaths because of the UN economic sanctions? Few reporters gave any mention of the twelve years of sanctions and the U.S.’s responsibility for them. Many journalists arrived with a perspective that they’d picked up from right-wing think tanks in Washington, D.C. They may not even have known how narrow a slice of opinion they were being fed.
This war was waged, ostensibly, over weapons of mass destruction. I always say that if you want to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, all you have to do is go to the pediatric wards and see the children whose lives have been ruined by depleted-uranium ammunition left in the soil after the Gulf War. The U.S. has developed, sold, and used more weapons of mass destruction than any other nation in history.
The “shock and awe” campaign, by its own acknowledgment, was state-funded terrorism because it was designed to create fear. In the U.S. we have no idea what three weeks of steady saturation bombing is like. People held up fairly well at the start. During the first few days of bombing, it was clear that it would take a lot more than we were seeing to scare the Iraqis into submission. Shoppers were still out in the marketplaces and going about their business. Two weeks into the bombing, however, everyone was sleep-deprived, the stores were closed, and the streets were deserted. Iraqis stayed home and prayed to survive. There were so few staff people at the hotel that my fellow peace-team members and I started helping with the dishes and the cleaning up. The Western journalists were still pouring over there for meals, because their hotel wasn’t serving any.
I think that bombing campaign — like the entire war — was counterproductive. Many people in the Arab world saw it as just one more punishment and humiliation heaped on innocent civilians.
Marines . . . are trained to chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill.” Even before they go into the military, many of them have been saturated with video violence and pornography — images that degrade our appreciation for human life. What can we expect will happen when they are in a foreign land and confronting an enemy?
Malkin: During the bombing, did Iraqis direct any anger or animosity toward you as an American?
Kelly: We were in public every day, and at no point did anyone say a bad word to us. It was remarkable. In some cases they may not even have known that we were part of a peace team. Even during the years of economic sanctions, when I made many trips to Iraq, I didn’t experience animosity or rage from people whose children had just died. Most of the time they would tell me they prayed that this would never happen to a child in our country. So while people in the United States ask, “Why do they hate us so much?” we all wonder, “Why do they love us so much?”
Malkin: What role did prayer play for you when you were in Baghdad and the bombs were falling?
Kelly: Well, every morning at 7:30, five or six of us got together for an hour of reflection. Those were certainly moments of what I would call “prayer.” But I don’t want to connect myself too directly with the Catholic faith. It wouldn’t be honest. I think when you turn something speculative like spirituality into a dogma, it’s a kind of contradiction. I have prayed, but I have never, to my knowledge, spoken to a deity, and I don’t know that a deity has ever spoken to me — though I could be wrong about that. I don’t want to put forth what I most want to see happen in the world and say, “God wants this,” because I don’t know that. But I do know that I am consumed by powerful yearnings, and I call that “prayer.”
I saw many Iraqis pray every day. At our hotel people would head downstairs when the bombing became intense, and I could look in one direction and see a Muslim man unfurling a prayer mat, and look in another direction and see a devout Christian crossing herself. I think an intense yearning for peace was common to everybody in that situation.
I find it troubling that George W. Bush invokes God when speaking of this war. Christianity has no room in it whatsoever for attacking and maiming and killing innocent people. I wrote an open letter to President Bush, describing the experiences I had with one of the youngest children in that hotel, Milada. After many days of bombing, Milada began to play war games in which she would imitate an airplane soaring across the sky and attacking her, and she’d fall down dead.
Malkin: How did your experience growing up influence your decision to risk your life for peace?
Kelly: Growing up on the southwest side of Chicago in the 1950s, I was obsessed with the nuns in my neighborhood. I knew their every move. I knew when they’d emerge from the convent, and what time they’d go back in. I was practically stalking them! If there was a chance to help the nuns, I’d jump at it.
You didn’t see doctors and lawyers living in working-class Catholic neighborhoods back then. The nuns and priests were the most professional people around. They were our role models, because they seemed to run things. And not one of them had any visible interest in accumulating personal wealth. Quite the opposite: when I was growing up, the nuns earned nothing at all. They shared everything and lived in very simple conditions. Yet they weren’t miserable people. They appeared quite engaged with their work and studies and charities. In inner-city America today, the only example you’ll find of a place where people live simply on no income is prison.
What surprises me is not so much that I wanted to emulate the nuns, but that more people haven’t sensed the wisdom in sharing resources and living more simply and making some of our wealth available to people who don’t have as much.
Malkin: You also went to an experimental high school where you attended public school half the time and a private Catholic school the other half.
Kelly: I was part of the last immigrant generation that got a leg up, because we got a very good education almost free, and it allowed us to move ahead in life.
Many things I learned in Catholic school inspired me to work for peace. Christianity is the tradition that helped shape who I am. I’ll never stop trying to understand how best to follow Jesus’ teachings.
Malkin: Are there any particular teachings that you hold as very important?
Kelly: In my earlier years I had a sense of fatalism. I believed it was OK to talk about a problem, but if I thought I could do something about it, I was getting too big for my britches. Just three words from the Gospel of Mark cured me of that: Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t be afraid.”
I have also found myself identifying with a teenager in the fourteenth chapter of Mark who tries to stay with Jesus after his arrest, when all the disciples have fled. The soldiers go to grab the boy, but he runs away, and his linen cloth comes undone, leaving him stark naked. And nakedness was as much a humiliation then as it is in the Middle East today. Later, when the women come to the tomb after Jesus has been crucified, they find a young man dressed in a long white robe there. Is it the same young man? The Bible doesn’t say. But before he tells the women that they won’t find Jesus in the tomb, he gives them the same message Jesus gave the disciples: “Don’t be afraid.”
For an example of what Christianity should be, I look to the Catholic Worker communities across the United States and Europe. Every time I am driving down a seedy street where the houses are becoming more and more dilapidated, I know that pretty soon I will find a Catholic Worker house with a rickety front porch and lots of sunflowers and a certain warmth. These houses are a refuge for idealistic people who want to be a part of a community with no hierarchy. They also provide shelter for people who are weary, who have been out on the streets, or perhaps were recently released from prison, or are fleeing homes where someone wants to harm them. Catholic Worker communities are based on the Gandhian idea of acceptance and tolerance. They don’t try to fix people.
Anytime I have been asked to help pull together a group to go to Sarajevo or Iraq or some other war zone, the first place I look is these Catholic Worker communities. If you say to them, “Look, this action is against the law,” the ones who have been to prison will say, “That’s all right. I’ve had a little experience with the courts.” And if you tell them they might be fined, the longtime Catholic Workers will say, “Add it to the tab. I haven’t paid my taxes in fifteen years.”
I think when you turn something speculative like spirituality into a dogma, it’s a kind of contradiction. I have prayed, but I have never, to my knowledge, spoken to a deity, and I don’t know that a deity has ever spoken to me — though I could be wrong about that.
Malkin: Do you think it’s important to integrate social change and religion?
Kelly: Religion is not the primary motivation in Americans’ lives. I don’t mean to be flip, but the national religion in this country is shopping. Most people in our society want their children to grow up to be good earners and consumers and to have a comfortable lifestyle. When a young person graduates from college loaded up with loans, almost like an indentured servant, and says to Mom and Dad, “I am going to do a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps,” good parents might feel proud. But if that child comes back and says, “I’m going to do it for a second year,” or a third, or a fourth, then the response is “Isn’t it time you grew up?”
We have allowed ourselves to be tricked into thinking that adulthood means accommodating ourselves to the demands of a society predicated on consumption. This seems far from adulthood to me. Adulthood should mean facing the fact that the planet cannot sustain our consumer culture and trying to raise a new generation of children who are in sync with that ecological reality.
Malkin: But does religion have a role in nonviolent action, or is it something that gets in the way of progressive change?
Kelly: I say if religion helps you, by all means, practice it. German political philosopher Karl Marx talked about religion as “the opium of the people.” Last year I was in prison, and the women in there were suffering so much — separated from their children, isolated and stigmatized, feeling remorse and guilt. Their spirituality made their time in prison easier, and I wouldn’t want to take that away.
Malkin: I was surprised when I first heard the full Marx quote, in a play by Howard Zinn called Marx in Soho. The whole quote is “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Kelly: So even Marx recognized that religion is a balm to those who are suffering. Of course, not all religious beliefs are conducive to change. I asked some of the African American women I met in prison if I could join their gospel choir. They were very welcoming, but there was a belief within that group that if God wanted them out of prison, the walls would fall down! Since the walls didn’t fall, they believed that God wanted them there. And I was sad to hear that.
There was a woman in the choir named Sherry, and she was a real leader, respected by guards, administrators, and other prisoners of all races. She was so trusted that she was allowed to drive a prison vehicle into town on errands. She was assigned to drive me to the bus stop when I left the prison. It was my only time alone with her. Sherry knew from other prisoners that I was opposed to the war in Iraq, but she didn’t like to talk politics. If God wanted the war in Iraq to end, Sherry believed, it would end! Yet, as she drove me to the bus station, she put her hand on mine and said, “I know that you care about Iraq a lot. . . . At least we” — meaning African Americans — “know that our boys aren’t over there in Iraq. They are all in here.” And she pointed to the medium-high-security men’s prison next door to ours, where the median sentence was twenty-seven years.
Of course, all too many African American boys are fighting in Iraq. But that’s not how it seemed to the women locked up in Pekin Prison, looking out the window and seeing the African American men of their generation or younger shuffling into the penitentiary, where most of them would stay until they were old and decrepit.
Malkin: When you planted kernels of corn on a nuclear-missile silo outside Kansas City, the soldier who arrested you at gunpoint also treated you with kindness by offering you water. During another arrest you were hogtied and ended up with a black eye, but you emphasized that one of the officers who’d processed you had touched you on the shoulder with kindness. How did you learn to see the good in people who are making life uncomfortable for you?
Kelly: First I want to clarify that I have rarely been treated cruelly by anybody. I don’t see myself as being very different from people who engage in cruel, reactionary activities. I may never kill another person, but I am able to bring the curtain down emotionally on someone and just pretend that person doesn’t exist or wish that person away, and that is quite a violent action.
When those soldiers had me hogtied, it helped me to better understand what’s happening in Iraq — because if this is what they do to a woman my age, in a setting where there are onlookers and no threats, imagine what happens when there are no onlookers and the soldiers are afraid.
We are not wired to be kind and sensitive all the time. I took care of my dad toward the end of his life. One night, in my seventh year of caring for him, I was sleep-deprived, and Dad called for me at 3 A.M. I went to his room and found him soaking wet, his bedclothes and pajamas saturated. He had probably had night sweats, possibly from a urinary-tract infection. Mechanically I got Dad out of bed and into a wheelchair. Then I changed the sheets — using my last set of clean ones — and put him in fresh pajamas and got him some cranberry juice, because I’d been told it could help with a urinary-tract infection. But Dad wasn’t interested in cranberry juice. He wanted to lie down. As I was trying to put the drinking straw in his mouth, he went to lay his head on the pillow, and the cranberry juice went all over the bed and all over him. So we had to start over again: get Dad into the wheelchair, try to find a clean set of sheets, put him in fresh pajamas, fetch him more cranberry juice. By the time I had done all that, I was frustrated and tense. I tried to get him to drink, but he started to lie down again, and I jerked him up and shook him — my own father — and said, “You will sit up !” I’m sure every parent who reads this will understand exactly how I was feeling.
Well, when our young people go into the marines, they are trained to chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill.” Even before they go into the military, many of them have been saturated with video violence and pornography — images that degrade our appreciation for human life. What can we expect will happen when they are in a foreign land and confronting an enemy?
It’s important to practice nonviolence in our everyday lives. The key to nonviolence is control. It is natural to feel anger; that’s not going to go away. But if you can control your anger and learn not to react out of anger, then you have a chance to express loving care toward your opponent and to affect the point of view of any onlookers. That is what we learned from the civil-rights movement. Americans watched the nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, on TV. Given a choice between identifying with Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor as he sprayed children with fire hoses or civil-rights activists who were willing to take the blows themselves, most onlookers chose the activists.
Malkin: You’ve taken many risks in your nonviolent protests. How did you overcome the fear of being arrested, jailed, or injured?
Kelly: We can all remember standing on the edge of a diving board for the first time: The board wobbles and feels narrow. The water seems far away. Maybe the kids behind you are saying, “Come on, stupid. Jump!” [Laughter.] But then you take that first dive, and you come up, and you waste no time getting back in line to take another.
The experience of one’s first nonviolent direct action is not so different. The idea of being arrested, handcuffed, placed in jail, taken before a judge, and perhaps locked up in prison can seem utterly overwhelming. But once you do it, you’ll find that the relatively short sentences we tend to get for nonviolent action actually give us much more — in terms of education and awareness and ability to understand the prison system — than they take away.
I say the same about going into foreign cultures and living with the people who are experiencing abject poverty. Many people might think, Oh, I could never do that. But when you are sitting on the floor with a family that has exactly three pieces of furniture, and they are giving you tea or possibly have sent a child to get you a soda, to offer you some comfort and hospitality, you think, Who could ask for more?
Of course, everybody feels fear. I would never believe anyone who says, “I am never afraid.” Courage is the ability to control our fears, which are sometimes irrational. The real trick is to blend courage with wisdom and love.
Malkin: The United States now has 2.1 million people in prison, accounting for almost a quarter of all imprisoned people on the planet. You’ve suggested that there is a connection between the prison industry — which is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. — and our perpetual war economy.
Kelly: One of the biggest connections is prison labor. Every federal prison has a factory owned by Federal Prison Industries, Inc., or UNICOR, a government-run corporation. These factories manufacture goods for sale to the government, paying prisoners slave wages — $0.23 to $1.15 an hour — to work there. At Pekin Prison, the minimum-security prison where I was sent, the factory manufactured, among other things, armor plates for Humvee military vehicles.
By U.S. prison-code law, if the federal government contracts with UNICOR to make a product, the government can’t take competing bids. Because of the lack of competition, UNICOR can charge exorbitant prices for low-quality goods. Pekin prisoners were making light-switch chains that sold for thirty-two dollars.
The Department of Defense has a $400 million annual contract with UNICOR, which includes a contract to manufacture uniforms. So two years ago, when President Bush appeared on that aircraft carrier all decked out in military garb to say, “Mission accomplished,” he was probably wearing clothing that had been manufactured or repaired or laundered in a federal prison.
When you add up the number of people who are in the military or in prison, it’s difficult to say that this country cares about its young people. Parents go to great lengths to make sure that their children will have comfortable futures, but droves of our young people who grew up without the advantages of a middle-class upbringing are shipped off to other lands to risk their lives, or are shipped off to prisons.
Jesus lived at a time when babies’ lives were so precarious that people didn’t place as much value on them as they do today. Yet when parents brought their sick children to Jesus for him to lay hands on them, and the disciples tried to rebuke them, Jesus said, “Suffer the little children . . . to come unto me.” These were the children society was not looking out for, the ones even the disciples wanted to shove out of the way. And I have had that experience, too, of having hordes of kids surrounding me in a poor neighborhood in Haiti or Iraq until I’m tripping over them. But Jesus was very clear. He said, “Let these children come to me.”
We all live comfortably . . . because the U.S. is able to obtain other countries’ precious and irreplaceable resources at cut-rate prices, under threat of sanctions, or even invasion.
Malkin: As the war in Iraq continues, the mainstream media often blame a particular act of violence on a few “badapple” soldiers who went astray. You have said that you don’t believe in the bad-apple theory. Why not?
Kelly: Well, I don’t want to say I would always reject the badapple theory. But I won’t point my finger at Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, and say it’s all his fault, no matter how tempted I might be to do so. Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein in the early eighties and is, to some extent, responsible for Saddam’s ability to have remained in power for so long. But I don’t want to say that he is the only bad apple. I am in that bushel, too!
Malkin: Who isn’t a bad apple, then?
Kelly: I once held a little girl named Sahara. Her legs were limp, her body emaciated. She had come into this world, had lived for seven months, and now was going to die. Despite having been born in Iraq, she bore no responsibility for Saddam Hussein — certainly not as much as I did. I had lived quite well here in the U.S. during the eighties, and one reason I could live so well is because we were able to control the flow of oil from Iran and Iraq by virtue of our support for Saddam Hussein. We all live comfortably still because the U.S. is able to obtain other countries’ precious and irreplaceable resources at cut-rate prices, under threat of sanctions, or even invasion.
This bullying and cruelty is almost entirely hidden from most of us, so we go on consuming and wasting and not asking too many questions. Then, when we finally realize what’s happening, we want to form a tribunal and haul out the politicians we love to hate and say, “They are the criminals, not us.” But I have an aversion to tribunals or any attempts to single out the bad guy, whether it’s Saddam Hussein or Donald Rumsfeld. There is not much utility in assigning blame to a powerful figure. We all share in the wealth of this country, and we are all capable of changing our lives, no matter what Donald Rumsfeld does. In fact, we stand a better chance of changing the culture if we initiate the change ourselves. And we will have more credibility with the next generation, who might decide to create an even better way of life.
Malkin: Can forgiveness help end the cycle of violence?
Kelly: Forgiveness is crucial. For someone who has lost a loved one to say, “I don’t want to impose that same suffering on another human being” — that is an extraordinary act of forgiveness, and one in which I place a great deal of hope. We must make more opportunities for people to come together without killing one another. That’s what peace teams, like the one I was a member of in Iraq, try to do. One of our most successful attempts was in Haiti in 1996, where the democratically elected government was under attack by the former members of the disbanded Haitian military. Every day four of us went out as far as we could into a rural, remote area with our spiral notepads and pens. The word got around that if somebody picked up a machete and attacked his neighbor, the story would go down in our spiral pads. Haitians expected the U.S. military to be invading soon, and they didn’t want their names in our notebooks back in the U.S.
The commandant of the region, Rigeau Jean, was no friend of ours. In fact, he almost deported me at one point. He said he was ashamed that it had been left to those blans (“foreigners”) on the hill to preserve the peace and security of the region. I can’t help but think if we’d had a hundred such teams with notepads, we could’ve significantly reduced the violence in Haiti, where there had been an overwhelming deterioration of living conditions.
But when will we, as a society, be willing to take that gamble, to put a fraction of our military budget into sensible peacemaking steps that have worked in the past? We have had two hundred years of militarism, and it hasn’t worked. And yet we refuse to use our talent, energy, analytical skills, resources, equipment, and funding to promote peace.
The UN is the only referee in world conflicts, and it, too, has become dominated by militarism. Eighty-five percent of the world’s weapons sales are conducted by the five veto-wielding nations on the UN Security Council. There is hope, but much more serious reform is needed.
Malkin: Is there real potential for peace teams to intervene successfully in violent conflicts?
Kelly: It does seem to me that if you have only a tiny fraction of an opponent’s military strength, but a great advantage on moral grounds, then it makes sense to try to advance a moral position and not get involved in fighting. I also don’t see the wisdom in laying down one’s life over the issue of where a border is drawn or which politician gets into office. I place a great deal of hope in peace teams. Every time that I’ve been involved in one, at the end of the experience I have thought, Yes, there is reason to continue with this.
There are situations, however, where conditions have deteriorated so much that it is hard to imagine peace teams making a difference. I have huge admiration for people who go to places like the West Bank, still determined to create peace in those settings.
Malkin: Tell me the story that inspired the title of your newest book, Other Lands Have Dreams.
Kelly: I was in Iraq before the current war, to bring medical supplies to suffering people there. I had reached a point where I had been at the bedsides of too many sick and dying children. I was so filled with grief that I needed to get away from hospitals, so I asked if I could go to a place where the kids were healthy. The next day I was brought to the Baghdad School of Folk Music and Ballet. This school was offering courses in Arabic and Western classical music, dance, and art to the children of wealthy Iraqis.
The students showed me an exhibit of their art, and I saw a child’s drawing of a jumbo jet plowing into the World Trade Center. My heart just clenched. I was pretty angry, but I tried to swallow it. I asked the kids if I could meet the student who’d drawn the picture. They fanned out in the hallways, and the next thing I knew, the artist was in front of me: a little eleven-year-old boy. And I said to him, “Could you tell me what you were thinking when you drew this picture?”
He folded his hands in front of him, squared his shoulders, and said, “Allah wanted this to happen to the people in America, so that the people in America would understand what happened to other people when America hit them.” It was like a little algebra equation for him. Then his teacher came along, and, catching her looking at him, he added,“We love the people in America, and we want to be their friend!”
I told him that I had been in New York City on September 11, and that I had known people who had walked from Washington, D.C., to New York City to call for a peaceful response to the attack. He and the other children were very interested to hear that. Then I told them that some memorial services for people killed on September 11 had included performances of a song called “This Is My Song,” which had been written after World War I as a celebration of people’s common dreams and aspirations. The lyrics are, in part: “This is my home, the country where my heart is / Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine / But other hearts in other lands are beating / With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” The kids asked if I would teach them this song. The director of their school helped me translate it, and within two days the students were singing the song back to me in Arabic.
After the bombing of Baghdad and the “shock and awe” campaign, looters went to that school and broke every window, splintered every instrument, and burned every sheet of music. It was a terrible loss. The head of the school, who by then had become a good friend of mine, came to the hotel where I was staying. He had in his hand a cassette tape he’d found at the ruined school: a recording of the children practicing that song for their spring concert. Listening to it, I started to hum along and sing the words in English, and then I saw that the school director had tears on his face, so I stopped.
I asked him later, “Do you think that you will ever teach that song to Iraqi children again?” He said, “Kathy, this is too much that you ask.” But he gave me the tape and said for me to take it back to my country.
If we were to take just a tiny fraction of our $524 billion military budget and put it into promoting cross-cultural understanding; if we were to teach our young people Korean, Chinese, and Arabic, and the basics of water purification, irrigation systems, and other life-sustaining skills, then they could help other people to realize their dreams, and we would be loved in other parts of the world. Instead President George W. Bush and the U.S. Air Force are envisioning putting weapons into orbit, militarizing outer space. Is that the vision we want?Is that our dream? If so, we’ll have a new arms race on our hands that will consume hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide.
Those kids I met in Iraq are now thirteen or fourteen years old. I hope that they and their counterparts in other lands can continue to celebrate that which we have in common, rather than that which separates us.