"Five Years Later"
by Rebecca Solnit
Read on March 19, 2008 at Montgomery and Market Streets in San Francisco as part of the Words Against War, a City Lights Books and Direct Action to Stop the War sponsored read-out of poets and writers on the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq (actagainstwar.net).
Five years ago and more, many of us vehemently, passionately opposed the war in Iraq. We opposed it by marching in the streets on February 16, 2003, in one of the biggest marches in this city’s history, part of the biggest demonstration in world history with people standing up on February 15, 2003, against war on every continent-including the scientists in Antarctica, small towns in Inuit Canada, South Africa, New Mexico, Turkey, Bolivia…. We were right, and now sheepishly, fudging their change of heart, everyone from Hillary Clinton on is busy erasing the memory of being for the war, of buying lies, of dismissing deaths, terrible deaths, the deaths of so many children, so many mothers, so many brothers, the deaths long ago of far more Americans than died on September 11, 2001, the unrelated event used to justify these five long years of slaughter and destruction, the destruction of the fragile psyches of the young, the ancient landscape of Iraq, the bodies that survived this war mutilated and disabled and shaken to need our care for decades to come. Five years ago we opposed this war, and we were right that it would be ugly, a quagmire, an international disaster, that it would make nothing safer, that it was about oil and geopolitics and never ever about justice and utterly unrelated to September 11, 2001. Five years ago here in San Francisco we shut down this business district to show how passionately against the war we were as it began. The war has been terrible, begetting the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the deaths of hundreds of thousands and a new generation of veterans saved by modern medicine from death–but for what life with their shattered bodies and minds?
We the international movement against this perfiditous war were right. And our actions reshaped the war-delayed its start, created dialogue, dissuaded potential allies from joining up or convinced them-like Spain, like Australia after progressives won power-to quit the coalition of the coerced, gave comfort to Iraqis and others in the middle east that we were not all clamoring for blood and indifferent to their deaths. The United States has begun in part to awaken from the long bad dream of its romance with conservatism and belligerence, was woken up by the savage catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina, by the endless grinding sorrow of casualty lists of US soldiers and estimates of Iraqi dead, by the increasingly obvious inadequacy of the far right to do anything but destroy. We stand at a moment of rich uncertainty. Ten years ago, the ideology called neoliberalism promised to privatize the planet. Since the Seattle WTO in 1999, the countering ideologies-of what could be called democracy, localism, populism, anticorporate activism-have remade the world, so much so that nearly all Latin America has undergone an amazing liberation not only from political tyranny but from neoliberal domination by institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. This year the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein wondered in print whether neoliberalism was dead.
We are at the end of a long hard road, the road out of the era of Ronald Reagan, of the post-Soviet romance with the free market, of the belief in American military invincibility even though that belief should have died in the jungles of Vietnam. When the war broke out, so many of the people in the streets with me here believed that somehow Bush had won. Had won everything, forever, that we had lost, that because we had failed to stop the war, we had failed to achieve anything, had never achieved anything, had no power at all. Dismayed by that despair and the amnesia and confusion behind it, I began writing about hope, speaking more directly to the hearts and imaginations of readers than I ever thought I could, to talk about the strange, unlikely routes that change takes, the unpredictable timelines on which it unfolds, the examples that shine like stars in the dark night of history, of for example of the amazing development in the twentieth century of nonviolence as a powerful tool for social change, one that has toppled world powers and dictatorships from the Philippines to Poland, that is at work in Burma and Tibet today. For guns and bombs destroy, but they don’t convert or conquer; the people of Iraq are not conquered, the war is not winnable, and truth is not the property of the strong but of the fearlessly honest.
In the struggle against this war, I saw extraordinary things at Camp Casey on Bush’s front door in 2005, I made new friends through the antiwar movement, I learned about sorrow and about the destruction of the human soul by torture-destruction of the torturers as well as the tortured, I rethought the relationship between the environment and human rights, between belief and action. I wrote, and I want to end by reading you a little of what the outbreak of war prompted me to write five years ago, the opening passage of my book Hope in the Dark:
On January 18, 1915, six months into the first world war, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.
Who two decades ago could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa? Who foresaw the resurgence of the indigenous world of which the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico is only the most visible face? There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of. We adjust to changes without measuring them, we forget how much the culture changed. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay rights on a grand scale in the summer of 2002, a ruling inconceivable a few decades ago. What accretion of incremental, imperceptible changes made that possible, and how did they come about? And so we need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.
It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it’s is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you havee to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. Anything could happen, and whether we act or not has everything to do with it. Though there is no lottery ticket for the lazy and the detached, for the engaged there is a tremendous gamble for the highest stakes right now. I say this to you not because I haven’t noticed that this country has strayed close to destroying itself and everything it once stood for, in pursuit of empire in the world and the eradication of democracy at home, that our civilization is close to destroying the very nature on which we depend-the oceans, the atmosphere, the uncounted species of plant and insect and bird. I say it because I have noticed: wars will break out, the planet will heat up, species will die out, but how many, how hot, and what survives depends on whether we act. The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave.
The war is not over. War is not over. Peace is not over either, nor is truth, or justice, or solidarity, or hope. There are terrible forces at work in the world today, and beautiful ones. And there is no neutral position. We are all taking sides every day in every act we choose. It’s not over. This terrible war will end someday, but our work will never be done as long as there are human beings on earth. Our work as activists, as dreamers, as makers, as noncooperating resistance matters; it is one force that shaped the world the last five years, and it will continue shaping this world long after the war is over. What you do still matters, so don’t stop now.
Rebecca Solnit, a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award, is the author of twelve books, most recently Storming the Gates of Paradise, and lives in San Francisco.