But I have just read the account of someone who did far more: American peace activist Peggy Faw Gish. She went to Iraq. She witnessed the war and it's aftermath. She, and her co-workers, demonstrated from inside Iraq, calling on the United States not to attack. They lived through the bombing. They saw Baghdad on fire. They comforted Iraqis who had lost everything. They could have been killed by U.S. bombs or by angry Iraqis.
Gish is still going to Iraq. She now works primarily with people in the Kurdish area. She was there last summer when the Islamic State forces attacked towns not far away. Her courage and love are exemplary.
I can't say how much I admire the devotion of peace workers who put themselves in the line of fire. Like journalists, they are noncombatants, and a number of them have been killed, like Kayla Mueller. More will be. They care so much about the Iraqis, Syrians, and other people who are under attack that they risk their lives to try to help these people and tell their stories.
Of course the deaths of westerners are no more important than the deaths of Iraqis, Syrians, and other people under attack. For far too long Americans, and perhaps other westerners, have treated the lives of non-westerners as less valuable than those of westerners (read whites). That must change.
But there is something special about those who go further than the rest of us, who do more than write and demonstrate in places where it is now relatively safe to do so. Some other aid workers Gish knew were kidnapped by Iraqis. She was herself kidnapped. Another female aid worker she knew, the head of CARE in Iraq, was killed, and so was a member of Gish's peace group. But Gish persevered and kept going back to Iraq.
Gish's first book, Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace (Herald Press, Scottsdale, Pa., 2004), tells how she and other members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) went to Iraq before, during, and after the second Iraq war. She and her husband, who died a few years ago, had first gone to work with CPT in Palestine, trying to witness, mediate, and intervene to bring peace. In 2002, she decided to join another CPT team going to Iraq.
The teams, as she describes them, are far from missionaries. Many of the members are Quakers or belong to other peace-oriented religions, such as Church of the Brethren, which is Gish's church. The teams are nondenominational. They do not preach. They do not want to convert anyone to anything other than peace. Wherever they go, they try to make connections with the local churches, mosques, and synagogues.
Unsurprisingly, Iraqi Muslims were skeptical of the Christian peace workers at first, but then learned that the teams had no agenda other than helping. The teams did not live in luxury, in areas like the Green Zone where U.S. officials lived. Gish and the others tried to live among the people. Sometimes they couldn't live as close as they wanted because their presence endangered the local people.
The teams endured many hardships, and they knew they were breaking U.S. law by going to Iraq when they first did.
They did not see themselves as "human shields," because that term has been associated with people who are forced to be in a line of fire or who are placed in danger by others. The CPT members put themselves in danger by choice. Gish wanted to create a community of U.S. grandparents across Iraq to witness for peace and possibly deter war.
The teams had to work with the Iraqi government to some extent. They knew that Saddam Hussein was a dictator who had done terrible things, but they did not believe that gave the United States the right to wage war on Iraq. The Iraqi government appointed "minders" for them and told them what areas they could and couldn't visit. Sometimes officials vetoed their planned demonstrations as too dangerous. The Iraqi government did not want the peace workers to get killed, and forced Gish and others to leave in April 2003 because they took a risk by going into a neighborhood that had been recently bombed even though the minder had told them not to. However, the peace workers came back a few months later to witness the war's destruction.
They tried to get to know many Iraqis, and spent time in hospitals and orphanages. They were shocked at the hardships the U.S. embargo had caused because it kept out many medicines and medical equipment.
They saw corpses, terrified people, and bombed-out buildings people. They accompanied wounded Iraqis to hospitals. They faced more suspicion after the U.S. started bombing. They had a rule against giving money to individual Iraqis, which was sometimes difficult in the midst of so much suffering, but it seemed wise. They could have given only a little in the midst of great need. And they wanted to be sisters and brothers to the people, not benefactors.
They let their hearts break. Their religious beliefs sustained them. If only all those who profess religious beliefs could follow them as these people do, or at least recognize that peace-making is the work most in line with the ideas many religions espouse. (I am not a believer in any religion, but I do believe in people trying to help each other.)
Gish's group operated by discussion; at first, by consensus, and later through chosen leaders and committees. Gish tells of her own feelings, and sometimes criticizes herself for getting annoyed at other members of the group. Please. Everyone is human. This group sounds as close to saintliness as any I've ever heard of.
Walking Through Fire: Iraqis' Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation (Cascade Books, Portland, Ore., 2013), Gish's second book, tells of her time in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. Often, she and her fellow peace workers tried to intervene to persuade U.S. military officials not to search Iraqi homes in the middle of the night. The peace teams learned firsthand that in those searches U.S. troops often looted and vandalized property. The peace workers appealed to commanding officers to get stolen property returned. The CPT tried to trace loved ones for Iraqis who were terrified when their relatives were taken away; the tracing wasn't always successful.
The peace workers saw the U.S. soldiers as individual human beings, and tried to interact with them sensitively. Gish says the soldiers were victims, caught up in a violent institution, doing horrific things they didn't want to do, sometimes out of fear and frustration.
Gish also saw Iraqis turn on one another. A young woman whose father had been killed for selling liquor and whose church had been bombed, told Gish, "Saddam was a killer. Now there are many Saddams." Some prominent Muslim leaders condemned such attacks, but they could not control the violence.
Like other observers, Gish reports that violence against women increased greatly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. War lets loose all the dogs of violence. The teams worked with Iraqi women's organizations as well as other local groups.
One Iraqi told the peace workers that what he most wanted was for them to teach Iraqis how to settle disputes nonviolently. But that was far more than a small team of peace workers could accomplish. (Indeed, they would have difficulty accomplishing that in the United States.) They did train some Iraqis in techniques of nonviolent protest; the Iraqis formed Muslim Peace Teams. The CPT taught them how to document human rights violations, interact with the media, and deal with trauma.
"Our hearts aren't big enough to carry all the pain we each have experienced," one Iraqi peace worker said at a training. People told of seeing family members killed, and of deaths in the Iraq-Iran war throughout most of the 1980s. Iraqis' suffering has a long history.
One person said that he walked into a training session angry, but left wanting to work for reconciliation instead of revenge.
Gish cites numerous examples of Iraqis working together and trying to help one another across denominational lines. But that certainly is not the larger reality in Iraq. She came to believe that Iraqis would have had an easier time resolving their differences without a long-term U.S. presence.
Many Palestinians went to live in Iraq after the creation of Israel. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, many faced brutal treatment in Iraq. After incidents in which Palestinians were slaughtered, Gish and others tried to help some of them go to Jordan. (One Palestinian man said Iraqis had murdered 10 of his friends; he left with his family so his relatives wouldn't be next.) The CPT went with them across the Iraqi border. The border guards told the Palestinians that they could never come back. Then the Jordanians wouldn't let them in, and they were trapped in a no man's land between the countries. The CPT helped them get into Jordan, but only after more agonized waiting in a wasteland.
Gish voices indignation about the U.S. attacks that had devastating effects on cities like Fallujah. Destroying large parts of cities to stop a small number of people involved in acts of terror is not justified and will not stop terrorism, she wrote.
Gish and her co-workers hoped for the best. The best hasn't happened, to put it mildly.
As Iraqis became angry about the American occupation, many blamed all foreigners and assumed they were all connected with the occupation.
Twice Iraqis kidnapped members of CPT. The first time, four men were kidnapped; one was killed, and the rest were released after a few months. The CPT had difficulty persuading the U.S. military not to use violence to try to free them.
The second time, Gish herself and a male CPT worker were kidnapped. They were held in a house and given food, but were guarded by men with guns and told they would be killed if they tried to leave. After a few days, Gish was released, perhaps because she was a woman, or perhaps because she had just shown one of her captors a photo of her husband standing in front of Israeli tanks to protect Palestinian property. The captor was astonished.
A few days later, her co-worker was released. Though Gish was traumatized, she refused to leave for the U.S. until she learned that the group's driver and translator had been cleared from suspicion of planning the kidnapping.
She returned to Iraq a few months later.
Gish wound up working in the Kurdish part of Iraq, which had been attacked by Turks, Iranians, and Iraqis. Even so, it was less devastated than the parts of Iraq that the U.S. had attacked directly. The CPT urged the U.S. not to back the Turks' attacks on the Kurds, but for years the U.S. did.
I had known that the Turks attacked the Kurds because Kurds in Turkey were rebelling to demand autonomy, but I hadn't realized that Saddam Hussein's killing of the Kurds amounted to genocide. (He used poison gas, apparently provided by the U.S., on them.)
The Kurds were initially more receptive to the Americans than were other people in Iraq, but they too becamse frustrated because the U.S. took a long time to stop the Turks from bombing them.
These books show the Iraqis on a human level, which we in the U.S. don't often see. Peggy Gish truly tries to approach everyone lovingly, and that is a way of being that few of us manage.
Gish briefly tells of the human cost of her work in Iraq. Both her husband and one of her sons died in the U.S. while she was working with the CPT. Somehow she dealt with the pain. Her faith in God sustained her through everything.
The Future? Who Knows
It certainly appears that some of those in the U.S. government who started the war in Iraq had cynical motives, but even assuming that some did not, I blame them for replacing a bad system with a broken society, and failing to see that very few goals are worth the human suffering caused in war.
I believe that the decision to attack Iraq has had far-reaching consequences, beyond the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis and thousands of western soldiers. It contributed to the suffering of many Muslims and members of other religions in war zones, the spiral of violence, the spread of radical Islamists, the war in Syria, and now the emergence of the Islamic State. I am not sure that the damage done by that fatal decision can ever be undone. But the existence of caring people like Gish and the emergence of Iraqi peace workers give me a little hope.