by Ariel Dorfman (February 25 2003)
It's an agonising choice, writes Ariel Dorfman, between caring for the future of the world and caring for the future of Iraq's faceless and suffering children.
I do not know your name, and that is already significant. Are you one of the thousands upon thousands who survived Saddam Hussein's chambers of torture?
Did you see the genitals of one of your sons crushed to punish you, to make you co-operate? Are you a member of a family that has to live with the father who returned, silent and broken, from that inferno; the mother who must remember each morning the daughter taken one night by security forces and who may or may not still be alive? Are you a Kurd gassed in the north of Iraq, an Arab from the south displaced from his home, a Shiite clergyman ruthlessly persecuted by the Ba'ath Party, a communist who has been fighting the dictatorship for long decades?
Whoever you are, faceless and suffering, you have been waiting many years for the reign of terror to end. And now, at last, you can see fast-approaching the moment you have been praying for, even if you oppose and fear the American invasion that inevitably will kill so many Iraqis and devastate your land - the moment when the dictator who has built himself lavish palaces, who praises Hitler and Stalin and promises to emulate them, may well be forced out of power.
What right does anyone have to deny you and your fellow Iraqis that liberation from tyranny? What right do we have to oppose the war the US is preparing to wage on your country, if it could indeed result in the ousting of Saddam?
Can those countless human-rights activists who, a few years ago, celebrated the trial in London of Chilean general Augusto Pinochet as a victory for all the victims on this planet, now deny the world the joy of seeing the strongman of Iraq indicted and tried for crimes against humanity?
As a Chilean who fought against the general's pervasive terror for 17 years, I can understand the needs, the anguish, the urgency, of Iraqis inside and outside their homeland who cannot wait, cannot accept any further delay, silently howl for deliverance. I have seen how Chile still suffers from Pinochet's legacy, 13 years after he left power, and can therefore comprehend how every week that passes with the despot in power poisons your collective fate.
Such sympathy for your cause does not exempt me, however, from asking a crucial question: is that suffering sufficient to justify intervention from an outside power, a suffering that has been cited as a secondary but compelling reason for an invasion? Despite having spent most of my life as a firm anti-interventionist, protesting against US aggression in Latin America and Asia and Soviet invasions of eastern Europe and Afghanistan during the 1990s, I gradually came to believe there might be occasions when incursions by a foreign power could indeed be warranted. I reluctantly agreed with the 1994 American expedition to Haiti to return to power the legally elected president. I was appalled at the lack of response from the international community to the genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda. I applauded the Australian intervention to stop the massacres in East Timor. And regarding Kosovo, though I would have preferred the military action to have been under UN auspices, I eventually came to the agonising conclusion that ethnic cleansing on such a massive scale could not be tolerated.
I am afraid none of these cases apply to Iraq. For starters, there is no guarantee this military adventure will lead to a "regime change" or peace and stability for your region.
Unfortunately, also, the present affliction of your men and women and children must be horribly, perversely, weighed against the impending casualties and enormous losses the US campaign will surely cause.
In the balance are not only the dead and mutilated of Iraq (and who knows how many from the invading force), but the very real possibility that such an act of pre-emptive, world-destabilising aggression could spin out of control and lead to other despots pre-emptively arming themselves with all manner of apocalyptic weapons and, perhaps, to Armageddon. Not to mention how such an action seems destined to recruit even more fanatics for the terrorist groups who are salivating at the prospect of a US invasion.
And if we add to this that I am unconvinced your dictator has sufficient weapons of mass destruction truly to pose a threat to other countries (or ties to criminal groups who could use them for terror), I have to say no to war.
It is not easy for me to write these words. I write, after all, from the comfort and safety of my own life. I write to you in the knowledge that I never did very much for the Iraqi resistance, hardly registered you and your needs, sent a couple of free books to libraries and academics in Baghdad who asked for them, answered one, maybe two, letters from Iraqi women who had been tortured and had found some solace in my plays.
I write to you harbouring the suspicion that if I had cared more, if we all had, there might not be a tyrant in Iraq today. I write to you knowing there is no chance the US Government might redirect to a flood of people like you the $US200 billion ($A335 billion) to $US300 billion this war would initially cost, no real interest from those who would supposedly liberate you to spend that enormous amount of money instead helping to build a democratic alternative inside your country.
But I also write to you knowing the following. If I had been approached, say, in 1975, when Pinochet was at the height of his murderous spree, by an emissary proposing that the US - the very country that had put our strongman in power - use military force to overthrow the dictatorship, I believe my answer would have been: "No, thank you. We must deal with this monster by ourselves."
I was never given that chance, of course. The Americans would never have wanted to rid themselves, in the midst of the Cold War, of such an obsequious client, just as they did not try to eject Saddam 20 years ago, when he was even more repressive. Rather, they supported him as a bulwark against militant Iran.
But this exercise in political science fiction (invade Chile to depose Pinochet?) at least allows me to share in the agony created by my own opposition to this war, forces me to recognise the pain that is being endured at this very moment in some house in Basra, some basement in Baghdad, some school in Tarmiyah. Even if I can do nothing to stop those government thugs in Iraq coming to arrest you again today, coming for you tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, knocking once more at your door.
Heaven help me, I am saying that if I had been given a chance years ago to spare the lives of so many of my dearest friends, given the chance to end my exile and alleviate the grief of millions of my fellow citizens, I would have rejected it if the price we would have had to pay was clusters of bombs killing the innocent, if the price was years of foreign occupation, if the price was the loss of control over our own destiny.
Heaven help me, I am saying that I care more about the future of this sad world than about the future of your unprotected children.
Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean novelist, poet and playwright. His latest book is Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet. This article first appeared in The Washington Post.