This Friday Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, took the stand at the official inquiry into the Iraq war. The UK people have been demanding this inquiry for some time, and now the question regarding the legality of the UK entering into the war in Iraq with the United States in 2002 is finally being addressed.
It is this type of accountability that marks the difference between the US and UK political systems. You have to wonder what would happen should the white house press conferences allow journalists to ask questions off of the ‘approved list’ of topics. Could the American politicians ever tolerate a ‘prime ministers questions’ style debate in congress or the senate? I doubt it.
However, after hearing Tony Blair expertly bat away and duck the difficult questions, like a well trained performer, you have to wonder if the inquiry will ever bring us closer to an answer: was it right to invade Iraq? Like many people, my opinion regarding the war in Iraq is strong:
Just before the September 11th attacks, my younger brother joined the army. He did it without telling a soul, and announced to the family that summer that he was leaving for boot camp in a month. We were staggered. But, for my brother the move made sense. It would give him the structure and drive he needed, which had eluded him through the more traditional routes like education. When the terrorist attacks happened, we all feared that the country would go to war and that my brother would be sent. By some turn of ridiculous fortune, my brother was sent to Germany and was told that he would not be sent to a combat zone: it turned out that he was color blind. However, for my father, who viewed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as equally justified and righteous, he could not hide his disappointment. Not because he did not fear for my brother’s life, but because he felt my brother would miss out on the opportunity to do his duty and protect his country from this most gruesome foe. My father and I argued relentlessly over the dinner table:
“The Iraq war is not just”, I cried. “It’s a smokescreen. Iraq has nothing to do with terrorism. The US government is manufacturing fear and propaganda to suit its own agenda.”
“How dare you! I will not have that kind of talk in my house.” My father exclaimed. “Your country deserves support, not some kind of pacifist anti-American nonsense.”
“I am not a pacifist – I agree that the war in Afghanistan is warranted. But the Iraq war is a distraction. And I am just as much an American as you are Dad, I can’t believe you just said that.”
“How would you feel if your brother was over there and he saw how people in his own country were acting? The soldiers are risking their lives – they ought to have your support, not criticism.”
“I’m not criticising the soldiers – I’m criticising my president! The soldiers are just following their orders. I am not anti-soldier, or anti-American, I am anti ridiculous war!”
“Leila! Do you think what happened in New York was ridiculous? They attacked our country, no less than 50 miles from where you live – they want you dead, don’t you understand that?” my father said with a sense of deep frustration mixed with anger.
“You are not listening to me Dad”, I said. I give up.”
We would never see eye to eye, and we were not alone. This debate was going on all over the country, both at the dinner table and in the media. It is hard for us to remember back all those years, but the general mood in the US tended to side more with my father. I remember being very reserved and cautious about speaking my opinion freely, as there was always someone who would get visibly upset by it, and the argument would turn ugly. There were even rumours of people being hunted down SS style for treason by speaking out against the president and his war on terror. It is only very recently that the mood has shifted to generally accept that the Iraq war did little to curb international terrorism, and the goose hunt regarding weapons of mass destruction was a costly folly. But I was at that conclusion from the beginning. I had gotten so frustrated and disillusioned with my countrymen that when the opportunity to leave the USA came, I took it.
I arrived in Italy in August 2003 as a study abroad student, and it was my first trip outside my country. I had prepared myself, so I had thought, by taking Italian language classes at my university for 3 semesters before I left. However, when I arrived I soon realised with horror that the soft accent of my Italian lecturer was deceptive – I could barely understand a thing! But I was too confident to let that deter me and I was soon walking the tiny cobbled alleys and streets of Florence with a complete sense of enchantment. The culture shock did not set in at first - everything was too exciting, too new. It was only when I began to attend my lectures that I got an overwhelming sense of fear and dread at the thought of being so far away from home. Suddenly, five months seemed like an eternity.
But as the days rolled into one another, and routine set in, I soon found my feet. I had gotten into the habit of having a morning espresso at my local bar before walking to class along the grand, tree lined via to the north of the city. Classes were taught in English, apart from our Italian language class, and my classmates mainly came from all over the USA. Lunches were tricky, because we always had to be mindful of the siesta hours when everything shuts and people go home to eat with their families and have a bit of a rest. If you hadn’t planned ahead you could find yourself hungry, shouting and kicking at the door of a shut gastronomia. In the evenings when we did not cook, my roommates and I would visit to our local trattoria. You could always tell who the Americans were: we were the ones hungrily lined up outside the restaurant anxiously waiting for them to open, which they finally did at 8pm!
We entertained ourselves in the bars and clubs of the city, which were filled with more tourists than Italians. But this soon grew old and talk inevitably turned toward travelling around Europe. Everyone wanted to see and do as much as possible, or at least as much as their wallets could support. One day in my contemporary Italian art class, a friend of mine was mentioning she wanted to take a trip to London for the weekend. I had never been to London before, so I was intrigued. She had found a cheap flight on Ryan Air and heard of a decent hostel from a friend. And, the weekend she wanted to go just happened to be when George W. Bush was visiting the British prime minister - a big protest was scheduled!
Panicked that the flights would be sold out due to popularity, that evening I rushed to the computer lab and booked myself on the flight. I had budgeted for one or two Europe weekend breaks, and after having already been to Madrid, I was incredibly excited about visiting London. Irritatingly, my friend bailed at the last minute, citing a lack of funds. No bother, I thought - I would go alone.
I told my family I was going to London, but I didn’t bother telling my parents about the anti-war protest. My mother would have forbidden me to go because she would have thought it too dangerous. My father would have threatened to disown me, again.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this trip to London would be one of the most defining moments of my life: I would never be the same again. To be continued ..
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