Iraq Anniversary

Iraq Anniversary


On the day the Iraq War started, I was in Milan visiting the Duomo, the world’s second largest gothic cathedral. If it hadn’t been for the jangling of tourists’ cell phones, I would have been happily lost in the lacy spires and pinnacles of the roof, a forest of stonework that I had been told not to miss. The day was uncommonly clear for Milan, the vista striking. But when I emerged from the stone forest and looked over one of the myriad parapets, my time as a tourist ended.

About a thousand people had gathered below, silently carrying multi-colored peace flags. I hurried down to join them. In this land where my mother had been born, there was a chance, I thought, that I might not look out of place, but I was glad not to talk. I didn’t want to have to explain that I wasn’t one of those ugly Americans who wanted war. The bombing of Iraq had started in the night, while I was still en route, and this early afternoon demonstration in the sunlit plaza seemed to be the first response of the antiwar movement. There were no speeches, just drums and mimes enacting scenes of terror. The crowd looked young. It was a work day, after all, but there was a smattering of older people.

Several hours later, after I’d met up with my other U.S. relatives who had come to make the trip to the ancestral village, I phoned home. My fourteen-year-old burst into tears when she heard my voice, and I wanted to cry myself. Why? Neither of us was in danger. During the Vietnam War I’d been angry. Now, I was scared. I could imagine myself the mother of murdered children, the wife of a soldier, a refugee gathering household effects and fleeing the advancing Americans. Was the difference that I was older? Or that on September 11, 2001, my own city had been under attack? My daughter had already participated in her own street theater that morning before school and had been arrested in a “die-in” near the United Nations. The police had admonished my husband to do a better job of supervision when he went to the precinct office to get her released.

Back in the hotel, the French channel focused on civilian casualties. I would learn that the images of the dead weren’t being shown on U.S. screens. Death figures, the French announcer declared, were hard to come by. Saddam didn’t want anyone to know how hard Iraq had been hit. Our government didn’t want to admit that its air strikes were less than surgical. But even without language, I could understand the televised pictures of large demonstrations across Europe.

On Saturday I returned to the plaza in front of the Duomo. Now, there were thousands of demonstrators, and the noise was loud. Hawkers sold the rainbow flags that I was more accustomed to seeing at the Gay Pride Parade. I bought rainbow headbands from an African and listened to the speeches, which, even in a foreign tongue, had the rhythm and feel of so many protest speeches I had heard before.

Then, from one corner of the large square, came guitar music. Not a plaintive chorus of “Give Peace a Chance,” but the robust strains of music from earlier movements–“Down by the Riverside” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Why, in the shadow of one of the most stunning Catholic churches in the world, second in Italy only to St. Peter’s, was it American spirituals to which the demonstrators turned. I wondered. But I realized it didn’t matter. No translation was necessary.

Maxine Phillips is executive editor of Dissent. Photo courtesy of writer.