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Kathy Kelly’s Chispa

Vijay Prashad teaches international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His next book is Darker Nations: The Rise and Fall of the Third World (The New Press, 2006).
I am grateful to Elisabeth B. Armstrong for her valuable comments on this review, which is written in memory of Father Luis Olivares for his example.

Kathy Kelly, Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison (Oakland & Petrolia, Calif.: Counterpunch & AK Press, 2005), 168 pages, paper $14.95.

Let us kill off youth
For the sake of truth.

We who are old know what truth is—
Truth is a bundle of lies
Tied together and sterilized—

A war-makers’ bait for unwise youth
To kill off each other
For the sake of

Langston Hughes, “Comment on War,” The Crisis, June 1940

For almost ten years Kathy Kelly has walked the wards of Iraq’s hospitals. She sits beside the beds of ailing children and tells them that she is sorry that her country has brought them such pain. She then gathers their family and apologizes to them as well. Her letters from Iraq, many published on the Internet during the late 1990s and into the 2000s, carried tales of these victims of the long U.S. war on Iraq. From her we got their names and fragments of their stories: we read of the tragic death of seven-month-old Zayna who was emaciated by nutritional marasmus, of Shehadah who might get heart surgery but no time in the hospital to recover, and of Miladh and Zaineb who had to fashion their imaginations around the daily bombardments that brought them “freedom.” From Kathy Kelly we learned about this long war, about its impact on the ordinary people of Iraq, about the embargo’s victims, the war’s victims, and the occupation’s victims. Her new book is a collection of her antiwar journalism (with a long excursus on her time in jail for her antiwar activism).

Kelly is part of a tribe of antiwar journalists who are also antiwar activists, although she is exemplary. She, along with other members of the organization she leads—Voices in the Wilderness (VIW), founded in 1995—went to Iraq to make connections with Iraqis as human beings, as they roamed the country with hearts open wide to its sorrows and frustrations. While some had come as Human Shields, others, in small groups, had come as ambassadors of an America without arms. They wanted to reach out to civilians, comfort them, and through their work create the bridges to a future reconciliation between antagonistic peoples. Right after the fall of Baghdad, this is just what the Californian activist Marla Ruzicka thought when she and Faiz al-Salaam created Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). Ruzicka’s tragic death made the mainstream media briefly cover her actions, but they didn’t embed her in the larger activist community in which she worked. She became the martyr for all that America had forsaken in the Bush strategy, and given that she had tried to “work within the system,” she became an easier figure for them to lionize momentarily. The pumice stone of corporate media is less able to work on Kelly. Her rough edges are ontological.

This is why the liberal journalist Jon Lee Anderson described her so ambivalently, for she, unlike he, had no qualms about where she stood. Whereas Anderson, the war journalist, wanted to see “both sides” of every question, Kelly, the antiwar journalist, wanted only to see through the eyes of the most affected by war. Early in Anderson’s book (The Fall of Baghdad, Penguin, 2004), in the days before the U.S. bombardment began, he visited the VIW delegation camped out at the al-Fanar Hotel in Baghdad. The hotel, whose name means the Lighthouse, had become a shelter for journalists, freebooters, and tourists (including Nick Berg, who had come to Iraq to make his fortune, but was executed by some insurgents in mid-2004). At the al-Fanar, Anderson met Kelly, whom he described snidely as “an ardent pacifist” who had become “very popular with the Baathist nomenklatura.” Anderson had imagined Kelly as “a female equivalent of [former U.S. Attorney General] Ramsey Clark, well intentioned but morally blind, one of those Americans with a pathological belief in the ultimate evil of the US government, someone willing to defend any cause just to oppose the United States’ policies.” That this is a faulty description of Kelly (not to mention Clark) is shown less than a page later where Anderson indicates that she is deeply opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and he quotes her to this effect: “I’ve always acknowledged that there’s palpable fear here and that human rights aren’t respected.” His unfair caricature arises perhaps because Kelly refuses to describe war as a coin with two and only two sides. She sees nothing worthwhile in the regimes of both Bush and Hussein and finds her truth in the aspirations of ordinary people.

Mainstream war journalists embedded themselves either with the U.S. military or else with its ideology. John Burns, of the New York Times, shared a hotel with Anderson in Baghdad, and both traveled together in the city. Burns offered boilerplate reports that disputed Iraqi government officials, while offering little criticism of U.S. officialdom. Unlike this kind of war journalism, Anderson, to his credit, went among non-official Iraqis to find out what the war meant to them. He visited the family of his assistant, shopkeepers, urchins, doctors and their clinics, and one man in particular who anchors his narrative: Ala Bashir, a plastic surgeon who had become Saddam Hussein’s favorite sculptor. Whereas Kelly spoke from the eyes of the average, war-weary, and terrified Iraqis, Anderson told the story from the eyes of a well-settled Iraqi intellectual who had much to lose from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and who yet was uneasy with Ba’ath dominium. Anderson can be ironic, whereas Kelly is always impassioned and painful, and because the conditions demand it, repetitious. How much suffering among how many children can one read? Precisely because of the ubiquity of the pain, and the ease with which we create screens around ourselves, this drip-drip-drip method is indispensable. In Kelly’s book neither the U.S. government nor the Iraqi government is the hero of the story. The only heroes are the people who overcome fear to create solidarity and who fight for survival at all costs.1

The failure of even the best liberal journalism comes in Anderson’s encounter with Dr. Jawad el-Ali, a doctor at Basra’s hospital. When Dr. el-Ali met the journalist John Pilger he told Pilger that the depleted uranium shells used in the 1991 Gulf War had created “the seeds of our death.”2 Now, he told Jon Lee Anderson about the high cancer rates, but the skeptical New Yorker writer offered little empathy. Instead, “I challenged him, asking him whether some of the cancer increases might have come from Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the war with Iran.” Ordinarily that might have been an intelligent question, because Saddam Hussein’s armed forces did use chemical weapons of all kinds during the decade long conflict with Iran. However, in Basra, the question sounded both uninformed and dogmatically in need of “balance” despite the facts. Dr. el-Ali offered the only riposte available to an overworked, harassed man whose people had been in a state of war with the U.S. for a decade. “He shot me a sharp look and replied evenly, ‘I know nothing about that. I believe that there was an American aggression against an Iraqi chemical weapons site, which I think was intentional, although they’ve said they regretted it. Anyway, most of the cancers, while some may have been caused by chemicals, show radiation sources, indicating depleted uranium.’”

Two facts stand out against Anderson’s challenge: forty tons of depleted uranium remained in Iraq and Kuwait after the 1991 war, and cancer rates increased by 700 percent between 1991 and 1994. Surely, even without dogmatic fury against the U.S. government, one could see that the tragedy raised by Dr. el-Ali had everything to do with the Allied bombardment and little to do with whatever other tragedies were inflicted by the Ba’ath on the Iraqi population. Anderson, and much U.S. commentary, shies fundamentally away from the suffering of the Iraqi people. They treat the entire sanctions regime with a rigid dualism that replicates, but predates, Bush’s post-9/11 mantra: either you are with us or against us. If you do not believe that the U.S. government is right then you are an apologist for Saddam Hussein. This is the entire logic of the sanctions regime: that a stranglehold on Iraq will cripple Saddam Hussein and chase him from power. As Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy put it, the sanctions “could keep Saddam on the defensive and create an atmosphere of crisis and tension.” Kathy Kelly reads this report on the road between Baghdad and Mosul and comments, “I wonder if Mr. Eisenstadt knows that more than one person lives in Iraq”? The point of view of the ordinary Iraqi, as eager to make a life as to make history perhaps, is ignored. The Bush assault on Iraq starting in 2003 was also predicated on this logic: that the overthrow of “Saddam” and his capture would be the end of the war. The ongoing “insurgency” (resistance) is a testament to the failure of this logic. There are many kinds of Iraqis, of various political persuasions, and most of them came to despise the U.S. government during the sanctions regime, long before this occupation began. Because Kathy Kelly writes from their point of view, this is her insight.

Kathy Kelly is a pacifist who believes that war is always bad and that its “unintended consequences” can always be anticipated. War, on that score alone, is immoral. We don’t get any of that liberal duplicity that asks for all means to be “exhausted” before war, which wants to keep the sword aloft while deferring what it concedes is perhaps necessary (this was John Kerry’s line). The Kelly line is far clearer. With a long history of opposition to U.S. interventions in Central America and the insanity of nuclear détente, Kelly went to the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border in 1991 to create a peace barrier against the tsunami of U.S. military force. The peace teams that went to the border then crafted relationships with ordinary Iraqis who lived in nearby villages and towns, and in the subsequent decade and a half Kelly and her friends cultivated these friendships. Her opposition to the sanctions regime came from those connections—as she, and her comrades, saw that the sanctions killed about five to six thousand children per month (in 1999, UNICEF released a Child and Maternal Mortality Survey that confirmed these statistics). The first half of Kelly’s book tells the story of much of this pain, but, as Kelly notes, “Although we may be tempted to feel pessimistic, Iraq’s children can ill afford our despair.” The sanctions regime was, for Kelly, war by other means, and here not a war against the Republican Guard or “Saddam,” but a war against Iraq’s children and their parents.

The severe effects of the sanctions tell us as much about the U.S. government as they do about how the Ba’ath cannibalized the state. Incensed by the sanctions itself, Kelly is unable to offer any perspective on the reason for the acute pain borne by the population. Cuba is also under a sanctions regime, although not as fiercely operated, and yet there has not been the complete medical collapse. Part of the reason for this is that the Cuban regime, despite its many problems, thrives on virtuosity. To cover the deficit in importable goods, the regime has sought to rely both on a progressive social ecological strategy and on the promotion of a regressive tourism. The health collapse has not been as acute as it was in Iraq because of the “social medicine” approach pursued by the health ministry (originally called Primary Health Care and recently called Family Medicine).3 The suffocation of Iraq by the Ba’ath meant that the few instances of inventiveness (mentioned by Kelly) do not produce public policy, and the cannibalization of the Iraqi state during the sanctions period meant that social defenses could not work for the population. In other words, the U.S. government imposes sanctions in many sectors, and the strategy itself is cruel and inhuman—and yet, it is in Iraq, because of the character of the Ba’athist regime, that the effect has been supremely inhuman. VIW worked in a planetary wilderness that had abandoned the children of Iraq, but it also had to speak for the wilderness within Iraq where the Ba’ath remained mutely autocratic. When the 2003 war began, Kelly writes bitterly, “Now we’ll bomb you so that we can stop starving you.” The war ended the sanctions, but the occupation produced a new condition of dread. What the sanctions had done to the Iraqi nation would now be continued by the privatization strategy—in both cases, ordinary people would not have access to the means of survival. Sanctions, in other words, are one of the most visible programs of capitalist cruelty.

Because the children, as Kelly puts it, “cannot afford our despair,” she acts. One part of action is documentation. Her antiwar journalism is crucial, and as part of her documentation Kelly builds the bridges between ordinary people. But that would not be enough to someone as committed as Kelly to refusing the onslaught of power. Most of the contours of her activist strategy are derived from the long history of Catholic Worker–style direct action. The early part of her book details her many arrests, and the latter half comprises her letters from the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois (where she spent much of 2004 for her antiwar actions). Kelly learned her method while on a trip to Nicaragua in 1985. Miguel D’Escoto, the foreign minister in the Sandanista regime and a Maryknoll priest, told the visiting Americans, “He hoped to initiate new methods of resistance for people who were understandably war weary. He called his offering a chispa, a spark to ignite prayer and fasting throughout Nicaragua.” Kelly took this method into her own life, and, like the Catholic Worker activists, she joined small groups of (largely Christian) pacifists in actions against state power. In her introduction to the very moving vignettes from jail, Kelly notes that many peace activists cannot “be part of civil disobedience actions resulting in prison sentences.” Many have families that need them, either young children or elders. Given our fragmented, atomistic, nuclear families, it is hard to rely upon wider networks to take care of those who rely upon one. The Catholic Worker tradition, as well as other communal spaces, attempts to create these wider networks in our own time to facilitate more courageous actions from its members who know that their dependants will be well cared for by their community.

On the surface this tradition resembles the non-violent politics of movements led by Gandhi and King. Both Gandhi and King, and their movements, took the disapprobation attached to prison and reversed it: it became a badge of honor to serve a jail sentence against the British Raj and Jim Crow. But while Gandhi and King developed their set of tactics in the context of a mass movement, Kelly’s actions are almost singular in our times. Nonviolence, in the Gandhi-King tradition, is an ethic and a tactic for a mass movement—with the ethical charge being that one cannot fight power with its methods, and the tactical one being that the movement must jam up power’s jails to make the system collapse. For Gandhi and King, nonviolence enables a mass movement for systemic change. Today, in the United States we are able to generate mass mobilized protests, but not mass organized direct action. Those who confront power in a disciplined manner are few and far between, and even as their work is important, it has as yet not provoked mass support.

In a time of mass retreat from organized political action, the work of small groups, such as that of the VIW, are more than important. They act both as the flame and the spark, the memory and instigator of struggle. Their protests rely upon small groups of highly committed and self-sacrificing activists who court arrest to “witness” against injustice. If there is an unjust structure in place, then they feel compelled to act against it to record their opposition to it. Whether their arrest threatens power’s hold or not is not the issue, because what is at stake is that they have indicated that they do not comply with power’s logic. Their “witness” is a media strategy, in that they hope that their arrests will bring to light the subjugated crimes of the system. If they act, they might encourage others to act, because, as Kelly writes, “courage is contagious.” Whereas such political attempts are frequently cut off from the life of the population, it might be that Kelly’s strategy is driven by the urgency of the situation (the sanctions and its child victims) and the lack of a mass movement in the United States. Out of the barest elements of our present, Kelly and her comrades “witness” injustice, and they hope to see a spontaneous rising of the inherently good population against power. Where movements are few, these sorts of acts are inspirational.

Kelly’s book ends with her time in jail. Characteristically, she addresses the problem of incarceration in the United States, offers stories of women who are in jail with her, and then provides a meditation on alternatives to incarceration (which have been crafted into public policy proposals by Critical Resistance).4 These remarks on the role of the prison system culminate in Kelly’s final paragraph, where she asks us, her well-appointed readers, to always tell the truth. But whose truth must we tell? What Kelly means is that we need to tell the story of those who are the victims of imperialism, whether inside or outside the borders of the United States. If we tell their story, and if we see the spark of people like her, we too will be compelled to act.

But this is not sufficient; indeed, it is merely axiological. A moral call to non-violent arms without the reality of vibrant mass social movements is valuable in itself. However, it does not provide an adequate analysis of power, of the relations between social groups, and of the capacity for disgruntlement to become political opposition. Such an outpouring of empirical evidence will show the reader how to get involved and where the potentialities of long-term resistance and transformation lie. Anything short of that is of great value in our anti-idealistic times, but it might not provide the heft necessary to give those of us who want to both make lives and make history the nudge to get on with the job. Few want to court arrest because the world is wrongly organized, but many might want to if it means that their sacrifice will produce a different day.


  1. On solidarity, see Elisabeth B. Armstrong & Vijay Prashad, “Solidarity: War Rites and Women’s Rights,” The New Centennial Review 5, no. 1 (2005).
  2. John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (London: Verso, 2002), 45.
  3. Richard Garfield, “The public health of sanctions: contrasting responses of Iraq and Cuba,” Middle East Report, 215, Summer 2000.
  4. For an elaboration of this strategy, see Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003).