Our Obligation To A 'Broken' Iraq

By Joe Gannon

02/09/07 "
ICH" -- - News and photos of the big anti-war march in Washington D.C. and the Valley last week brought to mind Colin Powell and Henry David Thoreau.

It was Powell who warned President Bush in 2002 that if the U.S. "broke" Iraq by invading it, the U.S. would own that broken wreck. It was also Powell, of course, whose pernicious testimony before the United Nations helped the United States do precisely that: leave Iraq a broken wreck which will not be mended any time soon.

And yet I find myself in complete agreement with Powell: Republican or Democrat, southern conservative or Valley liberal, the United States as a nation "broke" Iraq and now we "own" it -- not its oil, not its land, not its people: we own the wreckage.

And whether you're a "stay the course" die hard or a "troops out now" dissenter, those opposing camps are conjoined twins on one issue: neither believes that we own the wreckage in Iraq. The former wants to hand the bloody mess over to the Iraqis themselves, (They stand up, we stand down); and the latter wants to hand it over to some imaginary U.N. or Arab force. (As if the world will take ownership or our wreckage.)

Dispirited by the inability of either camp to put forth any plan which places the Iraqi people at its center, and thus claim the wreckage which engulfs them, I turned to Thoreau.

Good ole Henry David. The Massachusetts born and bred radical whose seminal "On Civil Disobedience", first published in 1849, echoed so strongly down the decades it inspired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The pamphlet began as a speech Thoreau gave to explain why he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax levied by Congress to finance the war against Mexico, which annexed the southwest and California to the stars and stripes. He refused to pay the tax because he believed the war to be "illegal", a mere land grab. (And don't Senators Hilary Clinton and John Kerry wish they'd been so brave?)

This story could end there, except Thoreau was such a citizen of the world, he took it one radical step further.

In a passage which could not but take the breath away of any American who reads it today, Thoreau used the metaphor of a drowning man to explain the duty of all citizens to overthrow both slavery and the war against Mexico, though both profited their nation: "If I have unjustly wrestled a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him, though I drown myself…(The American people) must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people."

Who among us today, left, right or center, would make such a claim in regards to owning the wreck we have made of Iraq? We accept the benefits of being the lone hyper-power in the world (we are 5 % of Earth's population yet consume 25 % of it resources), but when it comes to Iraq we either blame it on their President Bush, or assure ourselves that our candidate will make it all right somehow so long as we get out fast.

Yet here again Thoreau already awaits us with a mirror held up to our double standards. Referring to the selection of presidential candidates by "editors and politicians by profession" he condemns the sovereign citizenry who wash their hands of true responsibility by "adopt(ing) one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes…" of that candidate.

"Any purposes" including, not so much wrestling a plank from a drowning Iraq as climbing out of the pool altogether, but nevertheless watching Iraq drown.

I believe Henry David Thoreau would not have approved of America's withdrawing from Iraq, because he would have known that once out we will wash our hands of it, and only tsk-tsk at the carnage we see on our televisions.

He would've wanted America to pour its wealth and well-being into that wreckage even if it cost us our existence, because he knew what we have forgotten: Politics is not about policies domestic and foreign, not about sticking it to conservatives or liberals: it is about our own souls, and the soul of our nation.

Joe Gannon, teacher and writer, can be reached at

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