Monday, October 17, 2005

A Slim Reed

Iraq’s fate will be determined in the next 90 days. With the constitution apparently approved, the country’s political process under American occupation moves to the parliamentary elections. During this time, the world will see if the victorious Kurds and Shi’ites are willing to acknowledge the legal and religious rights of the Sunni minority that persecuted them for many decades. It will be a tough job all around. Eighty years of Sunni repression culminating in Saddam Hussein’s brutal, megalomaniacal dictatorship leaves the Kurds and Shi’ites with little reason to be charitable.

By tradition and practice, retribution has been an unpleasant reality in the Middle East. Iraq’s former leaders, mostly Sunni, have much to answer for. The Kurds and Shi’ias have old scores to settle and have been adamant in their disdain for Sunni demands for recognition. Shia’s have, in fact, shown restraint in not responding to provocations (which I believe are the mostly the work of foreign fighters and Sunni extremists trying to provoke civil war). Shia leaders have wisely restrained their masses but not their ambitions. They and their Kurdish allies have created a constitution that marginalizes the Sunnis.

Kurds and Shi’ites want the Sunnis restrained to prevent repetition of the past decades repression, a legitimate concern, and want to make sure that the Sunni Ba’athists will have neither the means (army) nor opportunity (strong central government) to take complete control over a unified Iraq. The Sunnis now look toward an uncertain or no future as a dispossessed minority without resources, menaced by Iran and its Iraqi Shia allies. With no future, death in the service of one’s family, clan and tribe has a grimly inescapable logic.

The best outcome of the constitutional referendum would have been its defeat. A defeat would have demonstrated to the Sunnis that the political process can serve them as well as their opponents. Passage with such a polarized electorate demonstrates deep, deep fissures that must be addressed if Iraq is ever to have peace. The one positive result of the referendum was the last minute agreement to allow immediate amendments to the constitution, giving the Sunnis some opportunity to think they can still influence that document.

The world will know the results in the next 90 days as Iraq elects a new parliament and begins to consider Sunni demands. Even with continued Sunni participation, they will still be a minority in a parliament where the Shia’s are the majority. The world can only hope that the Shia’s and Kurds will be able to accommodate their Sunni brethren. If not, the war continues.

Ironically, the Shi’ite-Sunni split is not among the people but rather between leaders and groups. Individual members of both sects have co-existed peacefully for decades. Shia-Sunni friendships and marriages are common in Iraq, as are mixed neighborhoods. Or were. More recent reports tell of ethnic cleansing as both groups seek safety among their own; individuals in mixed marriages are finding themselves ever more isolated. But the integrated tradition suggests that the hostility is not inherent among individuals.

More than anything, Iraqis must come to terms with their past if they are to have a future. Years of Ba’athist dictatorship have scarred their society and deformed the political process. A long history of repression and fear must be exhumed, examined and re-interred in the national consciousness. The Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa, eastern Europe and Latin America offer models of that opportunity. If Iraq’s new leaders are truly interested in building a nation, they will demand such an accounting. They can satisfy their need to respond to their former oppressors with justice, rather than with a new round of repression and payback.

But that will be a task for the new government. Iraq must first hold parliamentary elections to see if the Sunnis have any hope for the political process and if the new parliament can form a government that offers the Sunni meaningful participation. The outcome is far from certain.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Hallowed Ground

The Navajo Veterans Cemetery sits on a windswept rise of land south of Fort Defiance, Arizona. The wind blows from the west, off Defiance Plateau. across the Black Creek Valley, toward the rocky ramparts in the east. On gusty days scores of American flags stand stiffly at attention in the constant wind. The flags flutter languidly on less windy days. A day with no wind is rare. Just after Memorial Day, when Navajos decorate the graves of their warriors, the flags are bright and whole. In the following year, most give way to wind, water and sun. A few lie tattered on the red earth. Most continue to wave, however little remains. Some are new throughout the year, tended by loving families. In the strong late afternoon light the flags seem to glow, radiating a serene strength.

The graves are rough mounds, some enclosed by low a wall or fence, most simply rise from the earth adjacent to their neighbors. The mounds compete in size with the white military headstones. Newer graves are the tallest mounds, the raw, red earth still piled with the remains of flowers and evocative tributes. A new grave rarely has a stone markers, just a small metal tag staked at its head. The mounds on older graves are lower, worn by wind and rain but still equal to their headstones in mass. Occasionally a grave has collapsed into a shallow depression.

By military standards of order, the Navajo Veterans Cemetery is chaos. No special effort is made to maintain landscape. No even green lawn sprouts uniform ranks of white headstones. Native sage grows everywhere. The ubiquitous litter that travels on the constant wind lies amid the detritus of old flowers and memorials. Graves are aligned in uneven rows but no attempt is made to maintain columns. Military order is not here. Compared to national cemeteries or most non-Navajo cemeteries, this place looks forlorn, forgotten and bleak.

But it’s not forgotten and forlorn. The Navajo Veterans Cemetery fits into this windswept landscape. Formal landscaping, order, all the attempts to change the land so common everywhere else are largely ignored here. There’s no point to it; it serves no purpose to life in such a remote place. Like so much of Navajo Reservation, the Veterans Cemetery reflects the people who live here, people of the land. People who live with the land even as they adopt non-traditional ways. In this context, the Navajo Veterans Cemetery is a place of honor, a place to recognize fallen warriors.

Military service is s proud tradition among modern Navajos. Perhaps it traces back to the days when Navajo warriors fought to protect their people from Spanish, Mexican and finally American incursions. Despite the outrages perpetrated by the United States–Kit Carson’s scorched earth campaign, the Long Walk and systematic attempts to eradicate Navajo language and culture–Navajos have given their allegiance to the nation that subdued them. It’s an odd turn of events; people who have every reason to distrust their conquerors not only serve but serve proudly. When asked, Navajo veterans simply answer that they serve to defend their native land.

I am drawn to this place, my purpose ostensibly to photograph but really to walk among the men and women who had every reason to resent the national government which asked for their service. I envy their certainty even as I suspect that some may have been as uncertain about that service as I was. Somehow, walking here is a reprieve from the guilt, shame and anger I have long felt about my military service in a war I believed was wrong. I have long been drawn to military cemeteries for this reason. I feel a bond with these “honored dead”, wishing that I could feel the pride of warriors who did not doubt. More than the stately, manicured order of the National Cemeteries, the Navajo Veterans Cemetery speaks to me. The seeming chaos and rawness reminds me that all stories are complex.