Ryan Harvey

Is It About Independence, Or Explosions?

In Thoughts & Analysis on July 4, 2010 at 1:16 am

I sat on the stone wall that lines Druid Lake tonight and watched Baltimore destroyed by bombs. I watched tracers light up the sky, followed by the deep pulse of distant explosions.

I watched huge clouds of smoke rise from downtown, escaping from the flaming buildings. I saw explosions as far as Dundalk, Curtis Bay, and Morgan State. I saw light emerging from deep in the West Side, illuminating the trees that line the park.

I saw the Belvedere Hotel hit by a series of missiles, a huge flame bursting out the East wall. I remembered when the bartender there, an Iraq veteran himself, took me and a friend on the roof to see the best 360 degree view I’d ever seen of the city. I wondered if he would survive the attack.

Then a huge bomb fell into the apartment building at Howard and 28th, sending a large cloud of smoke into the air. I could only imagine the horrors inside as elderly residents tried to escape the flames. I watched cars crossing the 29th St. bridge fired on by helicopters that then continued on their way into Remington. I watched mortar fire land in the houses of Reservoir Hill that face the park, and heard the sounds of gunfire from the streets behind them.

It was a total nightmare, something I never wanted to experience. Thankfully, it was mostly in my head. It was the Fourth of July, and celebratory explosions were popping off all over the city.

But I wasn’t celebrating, I was mourning. The fireworks reminded me not of 1776 or 1812, but of 2003, when I watched an almost identical scene on the TV news. I thought not of British Redcoats, but of U.S. Soldiers and Marines. I was watching a re-run of Shock And Awe, the massive bombing campaign the U.S. unleashed on Baghdad on March 19th, 2003.

I texted a friend, a former National Guardsman who participated in the initial invasion of Iraq. I told him I was thinking of Baghdad, watching the city light up, and I asked how he was. He said he was “in hiding”, not interested in being taken back to that place again, at least, not this year.

I thought how many friends of mine, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have joined the ranks of the anti-war movement, were in hiding too, taking pills to calm their shattered nerves, reasoning with their shame and anger at the roles they played in occupying these countries.

I thought of my childhood friend Austin Koth, who deployed to Baghdad in 2006 with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. I imagined which exploding firework might best match the sound of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that took his life two weeks before he would have come home. Then I heard it.

I thought about the millions of Iraqi and Afghan citizens whose lives have been turned upside down by the “Global War on Terror”. I felt so sad and sorry to the Iraqi people for the actions of my government, a government that wouldn’t budge no matter how unpopular the invasion was or how many people voiced opposition to it.

I wondered how I could explain that to those who lost limbs when our bombs came crashing into their neighborhoods because one of their neighbors may or may not have posed a threat to U.S. forces. I thought about the brave people who picked up weapons to defend their communities from the invasion of my government.

I thought “what if Baltimore was really being bombed right now?” I wondered what I would actually feel like, what it means to watch your home, the home of so many friends and family, crumble under the bombs of a foreign government. I wondered what I would do and what my friends would do. Would I go out into the chaos to look for survivors? Would I stay far away hoping to save my own life? Would I fight? Would I organize others to fight with me?

These thoughts paralyzed me for an hour as I sat and stared out into the city. I was among families having cookouts, all the while a simulation of a major bombing campaign lit up my city’s skyline.

I saw Baghdad.

It is amazing that we celebrate our Independence Day in such a way. A total glorification of war. A sensory overload of violence. After all, our fireworks are meant to imitate the “bombs bursting in air” which helped win the so-called Independence War against Britain.

I wonder how many on this day they think about the “genocide basic to this country’s birth,” as Cree folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie puts it… of the forced “Trail of Tears” march to Oklahoma, of  Red Cloud’s war in what is now Wyoming, where the young Crazy Horse helped strategize the fight against the imperial army of Colonel Henry Carrington, or of the massacre of Cheyennes at Sand Creek  under Colonel John Chivington.

I wonder how many actually een consider the Independence movement that led to the creation of the United States, it’s inspiring stories of unity and struggle, and it’s disgusting associations with slavery, conquest, and war . I wonder if they think about other Independence movements, from Vietnam and India to Algeria and Mozambique, that fought similar struggles against colonialism.

I wonder if any note the parallels between British policy in colonial America and U.S. policy in Iraq. After all, it was the British who set the stage for our presence when they invaded and occupied Iraq in 1921.

And the Iraqi resistance that arose after U.S. Administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer set drastic and far-reaching economic decrees in 2004 isn’t that different from events in our own history. Only two decades after a coalition of African and Irish slaves, alongside others, tried to burn down the city of New York, working class American “patriots”, without the leadership of any of the so-called “Founding Fathers,” fought back after similar changes were initiated by the British in the 1760s and 70s. They kicked British officials out of the farmlands of New England, rioted against the Stamp Act, and dumped Tea in the Boston Harbor to protest British economic policies.

Then they picked up guns.

But political history aside, a deeper question remains; why the glorification of war? Is it to remind ourselves of the glory of victory, to remember those who suffered and died to free the United States from Britain? Is it to turn war into a celebration, to be enjoyed from afar, knowing we will probably never see it?

I tend to believe the latter, that the fireworks celebration is not about Independence, it’s about explosions. It’s about war. It’s a yearly mass-experience that reminds us that we live in a culture of violence and that we are safe enough from war that we can celebrate it from a detached position. But it’s not a conspiracy by some branch of government or some multinational fireworks company, it’s a cultural practice, an unwritten consensus.

If we took time to consider the real impacts that war and mass violence have across the world, I don’t think we would be able to stomach all the hot dogs. I think we would start to feel the weight of so many lives that were taken early by the crippling shards of shrapnel bursting out of bombs and missiles dropped by our military around the world.

And if we all considered what we would do if we were on the receiving end of such an assault, if we saw the bombing of Baltimore the way i did tonight, maybe we would feel the common humanity that binds us to those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other countries that live the results of our government’s aggressive foreign policy.

Perhaps then we could start celebrating Independence Day in a way that honors, educates about, or supports those fighting similar battles today, even if they are against our own government’s policies.

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  1. This was the first year I watched all the fireworks without thinking of Iraq. It wasn’t until I was on the way home that it occurred to me that I had made it all the way through without thinking of tracer fire and rockets. Last year I nearly had it in the bag, but I got up in the middle of the show to use a porta-john, and that particular hollow thud the explosions make while you’re sitting on a plastic shitter brought it all back. Funny the way memories get lodged in there, and the things that will dislodge them.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I am a combat wounded Marine veteran of Vietnam. I was blown up in a rocket attack in 1969 when we were attacked by NVA on a place called Barrier Island south of Chu Lai.
    I was hit in 10 places in my body, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and post concussive trauma to L3,4&5. Have suffered great physical pain and have been in therapy for PTSD since then. Hospitialized twice for PTSD, and on heavy meds for many years.
    Why is it people are still so insensitive to us? They act as if we have some control over our reactions to the insane “celebration”. I left here for the weekend to get away from the onslaught of the civilian firefights perpetuated by the friggin fireworks perveyors here. New Mexico allows fireworks to be sold legally, but supposedly just the ground fireworks, but as you know they always manage to get the “mortars” somewhere. Last year I was relaxing in my recliner when some moron less than a block away fired three mortars in rapid succession..I’ll tell you, even after 40 years that sound is imprinted in my subconscious and I react. I called central dispatch and explained to the operator that I had PTSD and was blown up in a rocket attack..she chuclked as if I was some kind of whiny nut job..II informed her that number one if she thought it was funny that this set me off I would first call the police cheif, since I had his cell phone number, and that if they didn’t send a cop right away there could be some pretty nasty consequences. Needless to say a cop arrived in minutes. Too bad we have to come off as some kind of nut to be heard. Keep up the good work.
    Ed Conley
    1st Mar Div I Corps RVN 1969
    Combat wounded

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