Referring to the deaths on the USS Cole as a tragic loss, President
Clinton spoke truer than he knew. My Webster’s defines tragedy
as "a serious play or drama typically dealing with the problems
of a central character, leading to an unhappy or disastrous ending
brought on, as in ancient drama, by fate and a tragic flaw in
this character, or, in modern drama, usually by moral weakness,
psychological maladjustment, or social pressures."
Macbeth is a classic example, his greed and power-mania making
him the agent of his own undoing. The men and women killed on
the Cole do not fit this description, but tragedy almost always
leaves victims in its wake.
So who is the central character in this drama? The bombers? If
the efforts of U.S. intelligence agencies succeed, they will quite
deservedly be undone by their deed. However, if we are to learn
the lessons that tragedies invite, we must look closer to home.
President Clinton claims that "America is not at war." Yet the
USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, was refueling in Yemen on
its way to the Persian Gulf, its mission to support economic sanctions
against Iraq. The Gulf War has continued for ten years, transforming
in 1991 to an assault on Iraqi civilians — a violation of the
longstanding Geneva Convention. The United Nations and others
estimate that the sanctions are responsible for over one million
deaths and counting, including some 500,000 children under the
age of five. Barely covered by a UN fig leaf, the U.S.-led sanctions
have been disavowed as immoral and futile by a growing number
of nations and UN officials.
"We are destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying
as that," said Denis Halliday, former UN coordinator of the Iraq
Oil-for-Food Program and Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
In a May 1996 "60 Minutes" interview, Leslie Stahl asked Madeleine
Albright, U.S. Ambassador to the UN at the time: "We have heard
that a half million children have died [as a result of economic
sanctions against Iraq]. . . . Is the price worth it?" Albright
replied, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we
think the price is worth it."
Systemic character flaw? Official moral weakness? National psychological
Iraq is not the only scene of misbegotten policy. According to
an October 18 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Among the many foreign policy issues you won’t hear mentioned
by any of the presidential candidates is the fact that the
United States is planning to build a military base in El Salvador.
As the U.S. Army prepares to enter the civil war raging
in Colombia, American military strategists are searching for
a military beachhead from which to supply troops sent to Latin
Many Salvadorans are justifiably wary about the prospect
of a new American military base. Twenty years ago, the United
States supported an authoritarian right-wing government whose
death squads waged one of the harshest anti-insurgency campaigns
against leftist guerrillas in Central America. . . .
Now former guerrilla fighters, who just last March won
the majority of seats in the National Assembly, fear that
the United States will attempt to undermine their electoral
success. Their concerns are legitimate.
In the wake of the Cole deaths, a U.S. admiral said that naval
personnel "recognize that there is no higher calling than service
to their nation." However, we also serve who struggle to change
flawed and failed policies; patriotism is not a blanket exemption
from moral judgment and behavior.
As in Vietnam, those who pay the price are not those who make
the policy. The United States — with help from both its allies
and enemies — too often wreaks death and destruction in the name
of peace, freedom and democracy. Thus tragedies come home to haunt
us in myriad ways.
Amidst the sanctimonious pronouncements by public officials and
editorials, honesty is the most fitting memorial to the 17 sailors.
They didn’t deserve to die. The murderous policy that sent them
to the Persian Gulf does.
This column originally appeared in the November 3, 2000,
issue of the Cape Cod Times. Mary Zepernick is co-chair
of the Challenge Corporate Power, Assert the People’s Rights campaign
for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and
is a member of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy.
Her columns appear biweekly.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org).