Why I’m Going to Iraq

Published Friday, July 25, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

My summer vacations growing up could not be separated from the first assignment of the new school year. “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” became part of the summer experience itself. Sharing our stories extended the pleasures into the next season. The power of storytelling made its impression early, and it explains why I’m going to Iraq next month.

I’m flying to Frankfurt, Germany; then Amman, Jordan; then Suleimaniya, Iraq, just in time for the peak of the summer heat. August afternoons in northern Iraq approach 120 degrees. Air conditioning is not available; residents make do with a couple of hours of electricity most days. Water must be bottled or boiled. When the winds pick up, depleted uranium from southern Iraq can pose a health hazard. No one has yet determined the long-term health effects of the poison gasses that Saddam Hussein used against the Kurds there a decade ago, but dusty roads (i.e. most of them) are to be avoided.

Sort of redefines the term “summer vacation,” doesn’t it?

The risks are real. I will shave my beard, lest I be mistaken for a religious extremist. My 26-year-old son and I had to sign scary papers in preparation for worst-case scenarios that require consent from my next-of-kin.

I’ll be in Iraq for about two weeks, gathering stories from Kurdish families. How are their struggles familiar to us, and how are they completely foreign? Are there ways we can connect, despite the disparity of our circumstances? I’ll be there looking for those ways.

The stories I gather will then be retold, as quickly as technology will allow. They say cellular phone connections in this part of northern Iraq are fairly robust, at least some of the time. If I can manage a connection, The Register-Guard hopes to publish small “postcards from Kurdistan” while I am away.

It’s the smallness that I hope will make a difference.

The Register-Guard has for the past few years reserved most of Page Two for updates about the war in Iraq and all its ramifications. None of us can say we’ve lacked information about that corner of the world. Have you begun to skim those stories or ignore them altogether? I have.

If we can’t connect to information, how can we take it in? Without connections, information loses its relevance, and then its meaning. Stories can help us reclaim that connection.

I’ll be traveling with a small delegation under the auspices of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. This organization’s existence is a testament to the power of words. Author and anti-poverty activist Ron Sider challenged the attendees of the Mennonite World Conference in 1984 with a powerful question: “What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?” Mennonites, Quakers, related historic peace churches and other like-minded congregations banded together and formed the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Our small group includes a Quaker, a Mennonite, a Catholic, and a Muslim.

CPT has maintained a presence in Iraq since 2002, before “shock and awe” removed Saddam Hussein from power. Four Baghdad CPT members were abducted in 2005 and held for 118 days; one was killed. The organization’s motto is simple and direct: “Getting in the way.” Sometimes the engine of war becomes so efficient that we citizens can barely detect that it’s idling beneath us. CPT seeks to slow it just enough that each of us can notice what’s being done in our name.

Eugene is home to a visionary group who seeks to end war altogether. “Beyond War” builds a compelling case that war has outlived its usefulness. Sider’s hope was not so lofty. His aim was “not utopia, or even the abolition of war. But it might tug our trembling planet back from the abyss.”

Indeed, the purity of peacemaking can sometimes detract from its effectiveness. When it focuses on the ideal, it becomes dismissible by you and me, living our own less-than-ideal lives. Hearing and then retelling everyday stories from the Kurds brings peacemaking back to the human scale, where it cannot so easily be ignored.

Standing for human rights is done best after sitting with the right humans.

We all know the quote from English philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” But The Information Age allows for the possibility that good men and women who know nothing may produce the same unfortunate triumph. I hope this autumn to be doing my small part to prevent that — for myself and for this community, simply by sharing stories about “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has been a member of Eugene Mennonite Church since moving to Eugene in 1995. Additional links for those who want more information are posted below.

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Links:

Don’s Statement of Conviction:
http://www.dksez.com/2008/06/07/statement-of-conviction/

How To Contribute:
http://www.dksez.com/2008/07/23/contribute/

Christian Peacemaker Teams:
http://www.cpt.org

Ron Sider’s address to the 1984 Mennonite World Conference (text and audio):
http://www.cpt.org/resources/writings/sider

Beyond War:
http://www.beyondwar.org/