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Defining War

A friend e-mailed me a color photograph of an eight- or nine-year-old Iraqi girl in a cute sleeveless, blue-plaid blouse and jeans. She is sitting cross-legged in the grass by a brick wall that I did not notice at first was splattered with blood. She has her arms wrapped around herself in a way that tells me there is no one else to hug her. Alongside her is a pair of bare adult feet and legs laid out in the grass which someone else's hand is covering with a cloth, but the picture is cropped so that the viewer cannot tell whose legs they are and who is covering them.

Judging from the little girl's body bent towards the photographer with her questioning eyes as she howls with grief and betrayal, I guess it is her mother or someone equally important to her whom she has just witnessed being killed. I printed out this photograph to keep in a folder in the back of my desk drawer so that it is hard to retrieve. I don't want to get too used to it. But if I ever need reminding why I am writing about war, I pull the photo out, take a long look, return it to the file and get back to work.

Beholding the terror in the eyes of children humiliated by violence, it is clear to me that anything adults do to make children so afraid is a form of child abuse. It is as simple as that. Given the extreme physical and emotional harm that war causes children to suffer, it is not unreasonable to deem war a form of institutionalized child abuse.

Military and political leaders, of course, do not go into war publicizing that children will be hurt or killed. Usually they justify their use of violence by making patriotic claims: war is necessary to defend against aggressors/terrorists, or to right an injustice, or to restore what is theirs, or to protect or further their interests. If we ask, "What about the children?" they tell us not to be naive. Things are more complex than that, they say. There are historical and political factors as well as economic reasons behind war.

But even when the protection of vital interests is used to justify war, we have to ask: what is the experience of people who would give priority to protecting vital interests over protecting the lives of innocent children? What is the experience of people who would accept the suffering, if not the death, of innocents as collateral damage? With declassified Defense Intelligence information revealing that the U.S.-authored destruction of Iraq's electrical and, consequently, water and sanitation facilities was deliberate and executed with the full knowledge of the killing diseases that would ensue,[1] we must ask: what is the experience of people who would intend such suffering?

Iraq, whose medical services were once the best in the Middle East and whose education system once offered free education through university degrees, is now in shambles. One million of its people are dead, two million have fled the country, and two million are internally displaced--a society destroyed.

When the first U.S.-led war with Iraq broke out, with our own two sons grown and out of the house, I was in the first semester of a masters degree program in the humanities at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. I was so empathetic and identified with Iraq's children that I felt strangely as if the war was happening to me. In a book I am writing about the Bush presidents and war, the reader will learn why in a response I received to my letter about the first Gulf War published in the New York Times became a revealing A-ha! experience.

At the time of starting my graduate degree, with a gifted therapist, I was also in the middle of what turned out to be a privileged six-year psychoanalytic look at myself, a version of which would have been required to liberate the psyche of anyone wanting to become a therapist, a career I considered. It is not surprising that the near-apocalyptic destruction of Iraq would raise the question for me of what kind of man as commander in chief would lead such a slaughter. Beginning my search for answers. I interviewed people who had known the first President Bush as a child, his brother Prescott, his sister, Nancy, and other relatives, classmates and townspeople who knew the president growing up.

To get my interviews, I promised not to talk about business or politics, but only about how values are formed in childhood, especially the values that gave rise to the presidency of George H. W. Bush. I also read as many books and articles about him I could find, as I have since done about his son George W. Bush, whose Google-savvy classmates and childhood friends were not so willing to speak with me. Lastly, I have visited the hometowns of both men, locating the houses they grew up in and summered in, as well as visiting their schools and churches. I explore how the formative years of the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, and his son, George W. Bush, the 43d president, found expression in the destruction of Iraq.

If violence begins at home, no one would be surprised to learn that Saddam Hussein--the leader of Iraq, who used poison gas on his own citizens, tortured dissidents, raped innocents and murdered suspected opponents--had an appalling childhood. His suicidal mother attempted several times to abort him; and he never knew his real father. His stepfather, who beat and humiliated him, taught him to steal. His uncle, from whom he got his only attention, was imprisoned when Saddam was four, and after his release when Saddam was ten, trained the young boy to kill.[2]

But the Bush presidents? Aren't the Bushes the bastion of gentility? Haven't George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush served their country out of a sense of noblesse oblige? Isn't the family motto people of privilege should give back?

Certainly, the childhoods of the Bush presidents do not match the horrors of Saddam's childhood. The Bush presidents do not say that in childhood they suffered; but neither did Saddam, who built a monument to his abusive mother in his hometown, Tikrit. In their respective life stories, the Bush presidents tend to idealize their early years. "We were a close, happy family,"[3] says H.W. in his autobiography, while W. claims in his, "The unconditional love my parents gave all of us also freed us."[4]

Described by his peers in school as not a reflective person, George senior even warned reporters not to put him on the couch. Of course, no one else, no matter how qualified, can psychoanalyze another without the other's willing participation. But when his father is so conspicuously absent from H.W.s autobiography, we can ask what it means when he tells us that when his father died in 1972, he had lost a best friend.[5] Or when George W. tells us in his autobiography that the death of his four-year-old sister, when he was seven, did not traumatize him?[6]

Violence in childhood can take many forms from physical violence to what psychiatrist Leonard Shengold calls "soul murder" the crime without fingerprints, executed by neglect and emotional deprivation. Sometimes people can defend themselves against neglect and emotional deprivation by containing their pain, as Shengold describes it, in an "as if" manner: They act as if they were psychologically healthy, presenting a facade of normalcy that covers an essential hollowness of soul.[7] I believe that because as children the authentic selves of the Bush presidents were never affirmed, in their places they developed people-pleasing shells--attractive, intelligent, funny, popular and dangerously unconscious.

The psychiatrist R.D. Laing believes that if our experience has been destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. [8] Decoding the destruction of the infrastructure of Iraq by both Bush presidents reveals that in childhood their own infrastructures were destroyed and they were left starving.

While blaming childhood injustices for destructive behavior in adulthood has become a cliche, behind the smoke of cliche is the fire of truth. In Greek mythology certain rivers led into the underworld of Infernal Regions, and one of those was the River of Lethe, a place of oblivion, for those who drank of the waters of Lethe forgot the past.

With its root in lethe, the Greek word for truth is alethe, that is, truth is an un-forgetting. I believe that if the Bush presidents had not drunk from the river of oblivion, if they had been able to remember their own suffering and mourn what they missed in their own childhoods, they would not have caused untold suffering to tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Remembering is a prerequisite to having empathy, and the maltreatment of children comes in many forms.


[1] Thomas J. Nagy, "The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply," The Progressive, September 2001, 22-25.
[2] Con Coughlin, Saddam, King of Terror (New York: Ecco, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002), 1-22.
[3] George Bush with Victor Gold, Looking Forward, An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1987, 1988), 27.
[4] George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep (New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1999), 6.
[5] George Bush with Victor Gold, Looking Forward, An Autobiography, 116.
[6] George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep, 15.
[7] Leonard Shengold, M.D., Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989, 6.
[8] R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967), 28.

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