When the Enemy Is Me
Issue #63, April 2003
It was a rainy, early autumn Sunday in Christchurch, New Zealand, the sort of benign, expected grey weather that pushes you out of the house for a museum visit. And so we found ourselves doing just that, myself, my six-year-old daughter, Helena, and her friend Rylee. The Canterbury Museum, our destination, sits on the edge of the Botanical Gardens, which merges into Hagley Park, the third-largest urban park in the world after New York's Central and London's Hyde.
It is a rare link these days. London and New York arrive here, beamed down from outer space, places where two men with grey hair point fingers at reporters who diligently scribble remarks into pads; a low-tech revelation, knowing that these words, which hold so much import for all of us now, are transferred from sound, to notes, to computer, to news program.
The rain had subsided by the time we arrived at the museum itself, in time to see protesters gathering for an afternoon peace march. The pickets were hand made, white paper on sticks, "Some village in Texas is missing its idiot!" read one held by a flame-haired woman.
I cannot say it is easy to be a pro-peace American living in New Zealand right now. Then again, I cannot say that it is easy to be anyone with any beliefs living anywhere on the planet right now. When I left my home in Iowa City, Iowa, in February, to begin a one-year Fulbright scholarship, I had recently met with Rep. Jim Leach, our congressman, to get him onto our peace team. About a dozen of us attended the meeting in a windowless Cedar Rapids conference room. Outside the air smelled of the sweet decay that accompanies industrial-sized vats of oats. They make a lot of oatmeal in Cedar Rapids, or so I was told. One of the other people in the room, a film professor at Iowa, was later arrested for staging a peaceful protest in Iowa City. She and others laid down and blocked traffic. Stop the traffic, stop the war. Students, many farm kids of German-Scandinavian extraction, and proto-savvy Chicago suburbanites, screamed from their stalled cars. "Bitches!" I was told they hollered.
The folks who met with Rep. Leach were medical students, psychologists, navy reservists, professors, nuns. We were all for peace. I held the hope then that somehow the war would be delayed for a few months, although my less-romantic colleagues rolled their eyes at this. "We're doomed," my friend Kembrew moaned. "This is the same time table as the first Gulf War."
Americans Abroad Marching
In a line of vendors, a bearded man of about 50 sold The Militant for three NZ dollars, from a card table in front of the museum. The headline read, 'Washington Launches Slaughter of Iraqi People.'
I had already noted that I found myself trying harder to adopt the local dialect, the "g'day," the "ey, mate," to cover my Americaness. Yet I am proud to be an American. I just don't think George Bush is doing very American things right now. Right now, as a matter of fact, I think he is doing some very German things, the sorts of things the Germans thought were a good idea in the late 1930s. We joined the rear guard of the peace march. It wove through this most English of all New Zealand cities, across the river Avon, to the Cathedral, where speeches and a protest dance were taking place.
An American geologist at the University of Canterbury where I do my research commented that on a recent hike around Mount Cook, an Austrian named Boris would not talk with him and the other Americans. "Definite tension about "our war" up there on the mountain," he added shaking his head.
We marched with people who had made their faces white with black-lined eyes, just like skeletons. "It's like Hallowe'en," my daughter said gleefully. She was caught up in the pageantry of it all.
I recalled how at the height of the arms race, the skeleton faces were ubiquitous at marches; it was a time that seems so controlled and understandable and a little bit naÏve now. First they would launch theirs, then we would fire back, and so forth. Then someone would run out of bombs.
At the front of the demonstration, an American flag was held upside down. And so we entered the square. In the meantime, the sun had decided to come out, and the wall of grey clouds had been blasted back by the winds that roar unchallenged around the bottom of the world.
New Zealand has determinedly said "no" to war this time, with Prime Minister Helen Clark standing up to Australian and American calls to arms. Every day, people gather in Christchurch, a city of 300,000, which after Australia, is closer to Antarctica than any other continent, to pray for peace at St. Mark's Methodist Church, to pray for peace in the Peace Sanctuary at St. Luke's Anglican Church. On Fridays, the Catholic Workers hold a vigil at the US Air Force base at Harewood, which is near the main Christchurch Airport. They meet at the Totem Pole, a Totem Pole made in Portland, Oregon. Christchurch is the main staging ground for US operations in Antarctica and the Totem Pole was a gesture of thanks. Each Saturday, there's a peace vigil at the Chalice in the Square.
Mayor Garry Moore spoke: Mothers of the United States and Britain have to rise up and say, 'don't do this to our children,' he told more than 1,000 people gathered. Signs bobbed up with cheers, No Blood for Oil, Bush Butcher of the World, Bush Blair Howard Axis of Evil, and Genocide George, made to look like Hitler. One shopkeeper blared "Imagine" from his stereo. The Mayor of Christchurch is soon off to Brisbane, Australia, where he plans to ask the Cities of the Pacific Rim Conference "to rise up and stop the madness." Then an Iraqi immigrant took the mike. His name was Hussam Razzaq and he said, "Iraq is an innocent nation that has suffered two wars and years of sanctions֢ He described America's smart bombs and witnessing the damage in the last war, especially to children, of the 75 percent that were not 'smart' enough to hit their targets. "There are no words to describe the still eyes of a dead child."
I watched my daughter and her friend, captivated by a circle of people blowing bubbles. One man had a pie tin and an enormous ring and created iridescent, shimmying cells that caught the light. They rose, wobbling in the breeze, exploded. My daughter jumped to touch them, again and again she jumped, even though they were more than five feet above her head.
When the rally ended, records were played on a turn table set up behind an enormous military transport truck. "It's the end of the world as we know it," Michael Stipe sang out, as people danced beneath the hundred-year-old spire of the Cathedral. "And I feel fine."
People started to drift off. When we arrived home that evening, I turned on the weird German news network, where they mix German and English language narration over footage of the war. The crawl across the bottom of the screen offered the same blend. Tanks screamed across a vast desert road. I could not understand the German, got tired of trying to figure it out, and switched on TV One. They don't call it "Operation Freedom" and they are not renaming French Fries here in New Zealand. Instead, the logo-free news desk talks about the day's dead, British soldiers killed by their American colleagues. When they do have to name it, they call it the war, or The Crisis in Iraq. The network news offers interviews with Iraqi people living in Iraq, Cairo, and New Zealand, among other places. These are the very people who are so eager to be set free from Saddam Hussein, as I have been told by the American news media. A woman, speaking clearly and thoughtfully, notes that she is no supporter of Saddam Hussein. But it is their problem to deal with, she said, not Bush's. Interestingly, I can tell this is not America because Don Rumsfeld does not immediately get spliced in, talking about how terrorized Iraqi people don't even know what they're saying. In New Zealand, the discussion gives me pause because of its foreignness; that is, the language and tenor of the talk fits the actual. There are no dynamic graphics packaging the calamity. There is a quiet, somber air to the reporting.
'You are the Enemy'
This is war. Children are being killed. Iraqi people are terrified. The motives for the invasion are suspicious.
And the whole world, as they say, is watching. Perhaps it is this last idea that provides solace in these dark days. That there are places, like New Zealand, where the media tells a story of war not designed to get the best ratings, not designed to be the most sensational, not designed to root out insider-controversy. It is a day in, day out, grinding sort of narrative. Men die. Children die. Women are carried in bloody, make-shift stretchers from bombed marketplaces. Screaming people clamour for food in cities whose names none of us knew even two weeks ago. The media here makes it all so hideously real in its restraint. Perhaps it is because so many New Zealand boys have died over the years in European wars — from the South African War at the turn of the 20th century, to most recently as peace keepers in East Timor.
In February, when we first landed in Wellington, the capital city, the first city parade since World War II honouring returning service men took place. My daughter and I balanced on the curb. As the bagpipers came through, we waved our blue and red New Zealand flags, a flag built around a constellation, the Southern Cross. I wept. They stepped so high, the bagpipes sounded a dirge, they snapped their heads around at attention at their commanding officer. They were coming home from East Timor, where a handful of their peacekeepers had died. Soldiers of peace, representing the muscular end to a conflict that saw more than 200,000 Timorese die over years of wartime.
As one New Zealand, or Kiwi, friend remarked in a recent email, "It's not like bloody brutal leaders don't do their thing the world over on any given day. What's most alienating about watching Bush and Rumsfeld and their war machine is that somehow — and never in my lifetime did I think it would be America — they've become the brutal bloody tyrants. Bugger me. You are the enemy."
Leslie Roberts is a J. William Fulbright scholar at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Credit: Pax artwork copyright © Melissa Usher.