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Mixed Media Sculptor and Installation Artist   


HADITHA FAST DIARY

Introduction

From October 5 through October 29, 2007, the Firehouse 13 experimental art space in Providence, Rhode Island hosted "One Morning In Haditha," Russ Smith's powerful multi-media anti-war installation piece.  This work referenced the November 19, 2005 massacre of twenty-four Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in the city of Haditha. As a Marine patrol rolled through the dusty streets of Haditha on that day, a roadside bomb exploded beneath the belly of a Humvee. One of the Marines died in the blast. Other members of the convoy then invaded several nearby homes and shot to death unarmed men, women, and children.  Smith engaged in a water-only fast throughout the entire 24-day exhibition period, with each day of his fast dedicated to the memory of a particular Haditha massacre victim.  Smith kept a detailed online diary during his October 6th - October 29th fast.  His diary entries appear below. 

Day One - October 6, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Ahmed Khutar Musleh.  My fast began at midnight.  It is now late afternoon and I am a little bit surprised to find that I am not missing food all that much.  I suspect this may change soon.  The last thing I ate before starting this fast was a Big Mac hamburger, which somehow seems fitting.

It is a little bit surreal, to say the least, to be quietly engaging in this water-only fast while still going about normal day-to-day tasks and activities.  When I first started thinking about "One Morning in Haditha," my original idea had been to remain safely cloistered in the art gallery throughout the installation period, fasting in the midst of my artwork.  As is so often the case, it seems, what little snippets of funding I could scrape together for this project were of course nowhere near enough to make this "ideal world scenario" feasible.

But I'm now realizing that my financial inability to put my "normal" life on hold for twenty-four days, and retreat into the relative comfort of a darkened art gallery, is in fact a blessing in disguise.  Having to figure out exactly how to incorporate my protest fast into my regular daily routines and rigid work commitments is really heightening my awareness of just how insular and preoccupied we Americans are.  Our blinders are firmly in place.  Who has time to think about an immoral and unjust war, or reflect upon the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis killed in our name, when there are chronic money woes, work deadlines to meet, bills to pay, telephone calls to be returned, videos to return to the library, laundry to do and garbage cans to be emptied?

Today I quietly sip water while walking my old golden retriever on the beach, I pick up a few things at CVS, I update my artist website, I visit with family.  I sit in a comfortable living room and try to reflect on the terrible things that happened to those men, women, and children in Haditha nearly two years ago now, but in the background there is talk of needing to buy a mattress and boxspring, and what size one should get.  I glance at the newspaper and see headlines about a Red Sox ballgame and a ridiculously overpaid state government worker retiring in the midst of scandal, and I wonder whether, under the heavy crush of everyday close-to-home news and personal concerns, anyone really cares about the madness and the violence being inflicted by our government in faraway lands.  And, for those who do care, are they (like me) feeling helpless to do much of anything about it?

Fasting inside a quiet art gallery would have been a good thing, as Martha Stewart might say, but I think having to go this route will make my experience more surreal, and more personally meaningful.

Day Two - October 7, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Wagdi Aida AlzawiI have some hunger pangs today, but they are not as strong as I had expected they might be.  Still, it is unfortunate that the gallery is next door to a BBQ joint.  Water tastes good, and I'm drinking lots of it.

I started the day at church.  Many good things were said during the service, but one phrase has resonated with me all day:  "We pray for a broken world."  The world is a gift, and it's extraordinary how human beings have screwed it up so badly.  It is indeed broken, ripped apart by war and violence.  I am ashamed to live in an aggressor nation, and I wonder if America will ever get back on track.  Our love affair with the military machine seems very entrenched.  The rationale for this war was all blue smoke and mirrors, but of course blue smoke and mirrors can be very pretty to look at.

I visited the www.frankwuterich.com website today.  Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich was the ranking enlisted marine involved in the Haditha killings.  On October 4th, the day before my installation opened, a senior military investigator recommended that of the seventeen murder charges leveled against Wuterich, ten be dismissed and seven be reduced to "negligent homicide."  It looks like he may skate.  The website is very flashy.  A waving American flag, a link to the bios for the lawyers defending Wuterich, even a button to click on should one wish to make an online PayPal donation to the legal defense fund.  And there is a heartfelt statement from Wuterich's parents that includes this line:  "He is a Marine who was doing the job he was trained to do."  I let those words wash over me for awhile, and there is a bit of simple truth to them.  Marines, after all, are trained to kill people.  Thoreau, writing so many years ago, lamented the "black arts" employed by the government to produce a soldier, with the end result being "a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity."  Nothing has changed, it seems.

The website sings Wuterich's praises, mentioning his high school music and drama club credentials, his family values, his wife and three young daughters.  The Haditha dead included several young girls, their lives extinguished in a matter of seconds one November morning.  What might they have accomplished had they been allowed to live?  They will never fall in love, or marry, or have children. Years from now, when Haditha is a faded memory, and Wuterich's children have reached those and so many other milestones in life, will he mourn the deaths of those Iraqi children?  Will he one day travel back to Iraq, weep at their gravesites, or seek to make amends to their families?  The government's "black arts" are a strong force to overcome, but stranger things have happened.

Day Three - October 8, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Kaled Aida Alzawi.  Today has been the most difficult fasting day so far.  I have been dealing with awful hunger pangs and food cravings.  Everything that I have read about water fasts suggests that these feelings of hunger will disappear by tomorrow, and I am fervently hoping that this proves to be true.  It helps to stay mentally busy, and I have spent much of the day immersed in The New York Times.

I visited the post office today and took a moment to peruse the assorted military recruitment literature routinely stockpiled there.  I brought home a glossy U.S. Army brochure titled "The Making of a Soldier."  On the inside cover, alongside the profile of a helmeted soldier straight out of Hollywood central casting, appears the text of "The Soldier's Creed."  The creed is replete with gung ho slogans ("I am a warrior  . . .  I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat"), but the line that most catches my eye is this one:  "I serve the people of the United States."

With an overwhelming majority of Americans now opposed to the Iraq War, I struggle to make sense of this statement.  In point of fact, the soldiers in Iraq (not to mention the multitude of hired gun mercenaries working for politically-connected "private military companies") are not serving "the people" of this country.  Rather, they are serving the interests of an amazingly small group of powerful people, mostly white, male, elderly, and wealthy, who, from behind their safe desks in ornate Washington offices, direct what any human being with an intact conscience can plainly see is an immoral and unjust war.  It is depressing to contemplate the state of affairs we find ourselves in.  A handful of men have effectively hijacked this country and sent "our" soldiers off to kill and maim hundreds of thousands of civilians living in a country that did not invade us and did not take any hostile action against us.

That this can happen in the face of worldwide condemnation of the United States is remarkable.  Why is it that so many Americans could not see what the rest of the world's citizens saw so clearly back when Bush and his gang were just beginning their pre-war campaign of lies and deception?  Was it the 9/11 attacks that made us so willing to see enemies in every corner?  Fear can do strange things to people.  It will cloud your mind if you let it.

Do the American kids fighting in Baghdad really believe that they are serving the people of the United States?  If they are to truly follow the Soldier's Creed, they must throw down their weapons in the sand and tell their masters that the people of the United States, whom they are duty-bound to serve, no longer wish for them to slaughter any more innocent Iraqis.

Day Four - October 9, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Mohmed Tabal Ahmed.  Also fasting today is my sister Amy Smith.  It feels good to know that other people are fasting with me.  Amy's husband Bill and their son Ness will also be joining in this Haditha fast later in the week.

When Amy and I spoke recently, she mentioned the significance of having each day of this 24-day fast dedicated to the memory of an individual victim, such that the faster knows that he or she is honoring a particular man, woman, or child.  Having a name to hold close does indeed help to counterbalance the benign and daily mainstream media references to "collateral damage."  I only wish that I also had photographs of all of these Iraqi murder victims, to further personalize my small attempt to honor their memories.  Not surprisingly, though, an Internet search will not turn up an image of Mohmed Tabal Ahmed.  On the other hand, if one Googles the names of any of the four Marines initially charged with murder in connection with the Haditha massacre, one is inundated with photographs, lengthy and laudatory personal histories, statements of support for "our brave soldiers," and websites extolling the virtues of these wrongfully-accused American fighting men. 

The emotional disconnect that exists between Americans and the ugly realities of this immoral war is vigorously safeguarded by our government, aided and abetted by the media.  While conservative bloggers and pundits rant and rave about the so-called liberal bias of the mainstream media, it seems to me that newspapers and television networks are all too willing to assist the government in its efforts to "protect" us from being confronted with the bloody reality of warfare.  Absent that important confrontation, it is that much easier for many Americans to buy into the glorification of war and instinctively genuflect before the "heroic" boys and girls in uniform who are periodically paraded before us, with all of the accompanying requisite fanfare.

The Haditha killings provide yet another example of this unholy government/media alliance.  In the wake of the killings, some Marines took dozens of photographs of the slaughtered civilians.  They traded the images, e-mailed them to one another, uploaded them to personal websites, in one instance even set some pictures to music.  Lance Cpl. Andrew Wright, a Marine who arrived on the scene after the violence under orders to retrieve the bodies, took photographs and retained them.  Wright explains his decision to preserve his photographs by saying, "In my opinion, the people that I photographed had been murdered."

Agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) scoured the globe for the Marines' Haditha pictures, eventually tracking them down.  Later, when thousands of pages of NCIS investigative documents pertaining to the Haditha incident were leaked to The Washington Post, the photographs were among the leaked material.  On January 7, 2007, the Post ran a story by staff writer Josh White concerning the NCIS investigative file.  White wrote this about the photographs:  "Among the images, there is a young boy with a picture of a helicopter on his pajamas, slumped over, his face and head covered in blood. There is a mother lying on a bed, arms splayed, the bodies of three young children huddled against her right side. There are men with gaping head wounds, and a woman and a child hunkered down on their knees, their hands frozen around their faces as if permanently bracing for an attack."

White's description of these horrific images was followed by this terse statement:  "Post editors decided that  . . .  the images were too graphic to publish."  In the course of preparing for my "One Morning in Haditha" art installation, I contacted The Washington Post and requested access to the leaked photographs.  None of my telephone calls were returned.  Are the images simply "too graphic to publish," or are they also too threatening to the government and the military to be shared under any circumstances with the people in whose name these atrocities were carried out?

Day Five - October 10, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Akram Hamid Flaeh.   Joining in the fast today is my nephew Ness Smith-Savedoff.  The five young men in whose memory I have thus far been fasting were the first Iraqis to be murdered by U.S. Marines in Haditha on November 19, 2005.  Their only crime was to have the misfortune of stumbling upon the scene of a roadside bombing just moments after the blast that left Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas torn in half.  It was a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The men were riding in a white taxi.  Four of them were college students bound for school in Baghdad.  The fifth man was their driver.  He stopped the car and all of the occupants got out.  They were unarmed civilians who posed no threat to the Marines.  Within a matter of minutes, perhaps seconds, they were all dead. 

In December 2006,  more than a year after the deaths of these five men, murder charges were finally lodged against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the squad leader, and Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz,  The charges were then dropped against Dela Cruz, and he was granted immunity and ordered to testify as to what happened to Akram Hamid Flaeh, Mohmed Tabal Ahmed, Kaled Aida Alzawi, Wagdi Aida Alzawi, and Ahmed Khutar Musleh.  The testimony of Dela Cruz is chilling.  The doomed men were standing in a line next to the taxi, some with their hands in the air, when Wuterich began firing at them.  Dela Cruz testified that he saw one of the Iraqi civilians drop to the ground, then turned to see Wuterich down on one knee and shooting his M16 at the line of men.  Dela Cruz also admitted to investigators that he himself pumped bullets into the bodies of the five men and later urinated on one of them.

Wuterich has claimed that the Iraqis had "started" to run away.  [As American soldiers fighting in Iraq know all too well, in the U.S. military's twisted view of the world, shooting to kill an unarmed Iraqi civilian who decides to run from a soldier and his M16 in a desperate attempt to save his innocent life is "justifiable."]  Yet a photograph (an enlargement of which is part of the "One Morning in Haditha" art installation) clearly shows all five bodies lying clustered together beside the car. 

I do not know whether the families of these five men were "compensated" by the United States government in the wake of the massacre.  Some, but not all, of the Haditha victims' families received cash payments from our government.  The payments were in the amount of $2,500.00 per dead Iraqi.  This is the value that America has decided to place upon an innocent Iraqi life.

I do know that, in all likelihood, nobody will be held legally accountable for the killings of Akram, Mohmed, Kaled, Wagdi, and Ahmed.  As noted above, the murder charges lodged against Dela Cruz were dropped.  And on October 4, 2007, a senior military investigator recommended that the same five murder charges leveled against Wuterich also be dismissed.  It is widely expected that his recommendation will be allowed to stand.

Day Six - October 11, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Jasib Aiad Ahmed.  I am one-fourth of the way through this water-only fast, but today has been difficult.  My hunger pangs and food cravings have ended, but I am feeling a bit weak, tired and discouraged.  I will need to sleep more if I am to reach my goal.  I think I am lucky that this fast is partly political, partly personal, and partly artistic.  I'm not sure that I would have the strength and commitment to continue with this fast simply by reminding myself of the importance of honoring the Haditha dead, or of distancing myself from my government's immoral actions in Iraq, although I wish that it were so.  But I have a third motivation, that being to protect the artistic integrity of what I have set out to do, since this fast is a key component of the "One Morning in Haditha" installation/performance art piece.  So I am hopeful that my passion for my art coupled with my opposition to the war will carry me along.

E-mailed messages of support are also a huge boost.  "Please know you are not alone."  Thank you, Alan.  "I am impressed and supportive of this work.  Keep it up."  Thank you, Craig.

Tomorrow evening I will again be at the gallery.  Paul Hubbard and I will screen the documentary film "War Made Easy," based upon the book by Norman Solomon.  It is an excellent and sobering movie.  One of the most jarring bits of information it imparts has to do with the rise in civilian casualties as war technology has evolved.  In WWI, 10% of the total wartime casualties involved unarmed civilians.  No real surprise there.  When much of the fighting is hand-to-hand combat with fixed bayonets and rifles, the likelihood of civilian deaths is minimal, absent an intentional act of atrocity.  But take a look at what our high-tech weapons systems and gleaming implements of destruction have done to the ratio.  In WWII, the civilian casualty rate climbed to 50%.  In Vietnam, 70%.  And in the current Iraq War, the rate is a staggering 90%.

The trend is clear, undisputed, and well-known.  The human cost of war has escalated fantastically in recent years, and our "leaders" stalking the corridors of power know this.  When Colin Powell put on his pre-war dog and pony show at the U.N., he knew full well that, once war was underway, for every armed Iraqi combatant killed or wounded, nine Iraqi civilians (many of them women and children) would suffer the same fate.  For me, this makes Bush's WMD campaign of deception that much more difficult to stomach.

One of my favorite Bible verses is John 13:34, quoting Jesus saying, "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another."  Why is it so hard for us to wrap our heads around such a simple concept?

Day Seven - October 12, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Kahtan Aiad Ahmed.  Also fasting today is my brother-in-law Bill Savedoff.  Today I am again reminded of the strangeness of a fast that must by financial necessity co-exist with the realities of daily life and work obligations.  On Monday, wearing my lawyer's hat, I will be in court representing several low-income tenants who are facing eviction.  And so I am at the local housing authority office this afternoon to review my clients' files, searching for defensive ammunition, perhaps even that elusive smoking gun, to use come Monday.  As I sit poring over documents, housing authority employees meander about their office, ignorant of course of my fasting.  Part of me wants to tell them, "Hey, do you guys know what happened in Haditha?  Listen, I'm fasting in protest of this crazy war.  What do YOU think about the direction our country has taken?"  But of course this would be wrong, inappropriate, unprofessional.  And so I quietly continue my fast as I make my way through the files.  As I said in my first diary entry, surreal.  Definitely surreal.

Tonight at the gallery we show the "War Made Easy" documentary film.  PauI and I first have to relocate the gallery's movie screen, and I am pleased to find that I can climb the ladder without feeling dizzy or lightheaded.  The movie is powerful and seems to have a real impact on the audience.  It features some sad/funny sound bites from Bush and his band of fools, including this classic gem from Donald Rumsfeld:  "There are known knowns.  These are things we know that we know.  There are known unknowns.  That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know.  But there are also unknown unknowns.  There are things we don't know we don't know."

Thankfully, the film moves past the insipid banalities of Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney, and Bush, and ends with some truly powerful and stirring words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  They were delivered by Dr. King at Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967, when the Vietnam War was tearing America apart, just as the Iraq War is doing now.  After watching the movie, I went online to read the full text of Dr. King's Riverside Church speech.  I have included extended excerpts from his speech at the end of this post.

You know, history really does repeat itself.  Although Dr. King was speaking forty years ago, in opposition to a different immoral war, he could (if he were still with us) just as easily deliver these very same lines today.  They would be every bit as timely, every bit as accurate.  The excerpted text is somewhat lengthy, but I urge you to read it with care and thought.  Then close your eyes and ask yourself exactly how much the Iraq War fiasco differs from the Vietnam War disaster, and why is it that we Americans can't learn from our mistakes.

"Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war.  I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation.  For the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.  It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war.  So far we may have killed a million of them -- mostly children. What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Now there is little left to build on -- save bitterness.  I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.  Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God.   I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted.  I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation.  The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure.  The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.  The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.  War is not the answer.  These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness.  We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.  History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.  If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.  Now let us begin."
 
Day Eight - October 13, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Jamal Aiad Ahmed.  Today is a quiet day.  I am resting and recovering from last night's film screenings at the gallery.  I do make the drive to Providence in the evening and spend several hours at the installation site, praying and meditating.

Day Nine - October 14, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of  Noor Salim Rasif, one of the young girls who was killed in Haditha.  Also fasting today is Kathleen Moore.  Today is a very good day.  I begin the day by attending church service at Peace Dale Congregational Church, a wonderful progressive church community with a shared concern for social justice.  A church member mentions my "One Morning in Haditha" project at one point during the service, and I feel both honored and a little bit self-conscious.  It feels very good to be in church this morning - I have developed a strong sense of spirituality since getting sober in 2002, and I am feeling even closer to God as a result of this fast.  I am starting to understand why fasting is often viewed in a religious context.

Later in the day I decide to drop off a new work of art for possible inclusion in a juried exhibition at a local art gallery.  It's a found object assemblage that includes a very heavy antique wagon, with iron wheels and a bed of thick wooden planks.  I wonder for a moment if I can safely load the piece and install it at the gallery, but I manage to do this, basically by taking my time, resting often, and doing everything slowly.  The physical part of fasting is a bit like living life in slow motion.  My only worry is that the piece will not be accepted by the show juror, forcing me to reverse the whole process in the next day or two.  I will find out tomorrow.

My older daughter Olivia is home from college on a short break, and I take her and Emma and Emma's friend Wylie to the movies.  I pull into a McDonald's to get the kids something to eat before the movie, and as they eat their burgers and fries in the car, and I sip on my bottled water, I realize that I don't feel at all hungry.  Although my pre-fast research confirmed that food cravings disappear for most fasters within a matter of a few days, I am still surprised by this.  The movie we see is "Across The Universe," a rock musical set in the sixties and featuring characters singing Beatles songs.  One of the main characters, the recently-drafted Max, is shown in the jungles of Vietnam, singing the Lennon/McCartney classic "Strawberry Fields Forever."  The line that sticks with me of course is "living is easy with eyes closed  .  .  ."  Driving home, I reflect on the basic truth of those simple words.  Life IS much easier when we close our eyes to something as messy and unpleasant to contemplate as an immoral and unjust war.  Take to the streets to protest?  Engage in mass acts of civil disobedience?  It's so much easier for Americans to close their eyes to the horror of a war based on lies, and just go online to soak up the details of Lindsay Lohan's latest booze-fueled escapade, or perhaps tune in to this week's sure-to-please episode of "Dancing With The Stars."  Nineteen million fellow viewers can't be wrong. 

Day Ten - October 15, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Zainab Unes Salim.  I get some good news from the local art gallery today.  The piece I delivered yesterday has been accepted into the juried exhibition opening this week.  No need to collect the work until after the show ends next month.  I and my body are relieved.

I start the day at the courthouse.  The opposing attorney is unavailable, handling another matter in another court, and so the cases are continued.  My clients are defendants in eviction proceedings, and so at least the continuances work in their favor.  I am reminded yet again of the inefficient and time-consuming nature of litigation.  It seems that the phrase "hurry up and wait" was invented with trial lawyers in mind.

Being in the courthouse causes me to reflect on how the Haditha prosecution has unraveled in recent months.  Murder charges lodged against two Marines involved in the killings have already been dismissed, and Lt. Col. Paul Ware, the investigating officer and a Marine lawyer, has recommended that the other two Marines initially charged with murdering civilians also not stand trial for murder.  Observers widely expect that Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general presiding over the Haditha case, will sign off on Ware's recommendations.

Part of Ware's stated reasoning for not moving forward on the original charges is, amazingly, that putting U.S. Marines on trial for murder could harm the morale of troops still in Iraq and "erode public support of the Marine Corps and the mission in Iraq."  It would seem that shoring up public support for this insane war outweighs the need to secure justice for the children and babies shot to death in Haditha in 2005.  Ware is also of the opinion that there is "insufficient evidence for trial" in the case.  Of course, to the extent that evidence is lacking, this is due in no small part to the fact that the killings were not comprehensively investigated by the military when they first occurred.  Indeed, it was only after a Time magazine reporter started asking some pointed questions some weeks after the massacre that U.S. investigators finally began to take a closer look at the initial cover-up story floated by the Marines.  By the time murder charges were finally lodged against the soldiers involved, thirteen months had passed since the incident.  The inexcusable delay on the part of our government in launching a thorough inquiry obviously impacted the availability of forensic evidence.  There were, for example, no bodies to examine - Islamic custom dictates that families bury their dead within hours, and forbids exhumation.  Further complicating the case was the all-too-convenient decision to hold the hearings in Camp Pendleton, California, light-years away from both the scene of this war crime and possible Iraqi witnesses.  Other U.S. soldiers accused of committing atrocities in Iraq have stood trial in Baghdad.  Why not the Haditha defendants?   

Day Eleven - October 16, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Abdul Hameed Husin Ali.  Also fasting today is Joan Mann.  Olivia headed back to college today, and I drove her to Worcester this afternoon to catch her Greyhound bus.  She looked so grown up as I left her sitting on a bench at the station.  I am very proud of her and Emma.  They are incredible young women.  Late last night I made some peanut butter sandwiches to give to Liv for the long bus ride, and I thought back to packing the girls' lunchboxes when they were little.  Making the sandwiches did not trigger a desire to eat, and I am again surprised by this aspect of a lengthy water fast.

The ride home from Worcester is a long one, and I nap for awhile, then visit the library.  I stumble upon an Internet story that gives me hope.  It confirms that a soldier can sometimes find his way back out of the darkness into which he is cast by his government.

Captain Peter Brown, a 2004 West Point Graduate, has finally been granted conscientious objector status and given an honorable discharge.  Brown was stationed in Baghdad for more than a year.  He began to study scripture following his commission into the Army, and developed a pacifist interpretation of the Bible.  He came to realize that his religious convictions prevented him from carrying a loaded weapon or ordering his men to use lethal force.  "I could not have fired my weapon at another human being, even if he were shooting at me."  Brown applied for discharge as a C.O. while in Iraq.  An Army-appointed chaplain and an investigating officer both concluded that he was sincere and recommended an honorable discharge.  Still, the Army denied Brown's request.

The Army has now reversed its position, recognizing Captain Brown as a conscientious objector and discharging him honorably.  Unfortunately, it took a federal district court lawsuit filed by the ACLU on Brown's behalf to secure this about-face by the Army.  Welcome back, Captain Brown.

Day Twelve - October 17, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Guhid Abdalhamid Hasan.  Today is a tough day.  I am feeling tired and discouraged.  I am now halfway through my planned fast, but I am a bit pessimistic about the coming days.  I manage to attend to a few tasks, and I drive to a local community college to register my daughter for driver's education classes.  Back home, my desire for food suddenly reappears.  When Joan sits down in the living room with a bowl of chicken soup, it smells incredibly good to me.  This seems odd after not having thought much about food for the past week or so.  We decide we will spend Thanksgiving Day volunteering at a soup kitchen, and I look forward to that.  I start to think about what it would be like to run a soup kitchen, then my mind gets distracted with thoughts of steaming plates of beef stew and warm Italian bread.  I'm very tired but I have a lot of trouble falling asleep.  Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Day Thirteen - October 18, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Asmaa Salman Rasif.  I feel a little bit better today.  In the morning I help Joan load a large pile of donated firewood into our old cargo van.  Pushing the heavy wheelbarrow isn't a problem as long as I remember to move slowly and take rest breaks.  We dump the wood in the side yard for now.  The plan is to stack it inside the shed this weekend.  I am looking forward to sipping coffee in front of the woodstove after this fast is completed.

I then decide to take care of renewing my driver's license, which is due to expire in a few weeks.  In Rhode Island, interacting with the DMV is never easy.  I start out at the Wakefield branch office, close to home, but I happen to hold a commercial driver's license, and am told that I must travel to the main office in Pawtucket, at the other end of the state.  I sigh, resign myself to my fate, and make the trip.  After a long wait, I finally accomplish what should be a simple act.  I wonder why it needs to take hours just to get a license renewed.  I do not like authority, red tape, bureaucrats, or paperwork, and I am glad to have this foolishness behind me.  I will have to do it again in 2012, unless America's love affair with military hijinks has destroyed the planet by then. 

I stop by the gallery on the way home to check on the installation, chatting briefly with Anna, the gallery director, and assuring her that my fast is going well so far.  Tomorrow night we will again be screening films and I am looking forward to that.

Tonight I visit the local art gallery where I have a new work on display.  I like the way the piece looks.  Tonight is the opening reception.  I steer clear of the food table, and do not stay long.

I end the day in the library, researching recent Iraq war crimes, still trying to understand how and why the Haditha massacre happened.  Clearly, a critical factor is the U.S. military's deliberate and aggressive efforts to train new recruits to perceive Iraqis as sub-human.  I'll end today's diary entry with this chilling U.S. Marine Corps boot camp chant, one seemingly tailor-made for Haditha:

"Rape the town and kill the people/That's the thing we love to do!/Rape the town and kill the people/That's the only thing to do!/Watch the kiddies scream and shout/Rape the town and kill the people/That's the thing we love to do!"

Day Fourteen - October 19, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Abdullah Waleed Abdul Hameed.   He was one of the youngest of the Haditha massacre victims, a four-year-old boy shot at close range in the chest.  He was killed  in his grandparents' home, and both his grandfather and grandmother were also murdered by U.S. troops on that day.  In December 2006,  more than  a year after the Haditha killings,  Lance Cpl.  Stephen  Tatum of  Oklahoma was charged  with  negligent homicide  in the  death  of  Abdullah Waleed Abdul Hameed.  Evidence gathered in the course of a belated military investigation implicated Tatum in the deaths of six Haditha victims in all, and he was initially charged with two counts of unpremeditated murder and four counts of negligent homicide.  However, as noted elsewhere in this diary, the senior military investigator charged with the responsibility of recommending whether the accused Marines should in fact have to stand trial has demonstrated a distinct reluctance to have the cases move forward to the courts-martial phase.  Predictably, then, he had recommended to the commanding general overseeing Tatum's case that all charges against Tatum be dismissed outright.  It was widely expected that this recommendation would be adopted.  Just today, however, Lt. Gen. James Mattis announced his decision that Tatum will in fact face a court-martial in Camp Pendleton, California.  The original charges of murder and negligent homicide have been reduced by Mattis.  Tatum will instead stand trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and aggravated assault.  Tatum is the first Marine directly involved in the Haditha killings to be ordered to court-martial.

We screen anti-war movies in the gallery space again tonight.  I am feeling very tired and looking forward to a restful weekend. 

Day Fifteen - October 20, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Huda Yasin Ahmed.  I slept until almost noon today, something my body definitely needed.  I have been losing weight at the rate of approximately two pounds per day during this water fast,  which evidently is about average.  The physical effects of having not eaten since the evening of October 5th are beginning to show when I look in the mirror.  If my weight loss continues at the same rate throughout this fast, I expect to lose between 45 and 50 pounds before the fast ends on October 29th.

The reactions of some friends and acquaintances to my Haditha fast have been interesting, even at times humorous.  There are some who simply cannot believe it is possible for a person to live on water alone for even a week or ten days, let alone twenty-four days.  Their comments and disbelief remind me that fasting, something that was very common and even at times crucial to human survival in centuries past, has become the subject of myriad myths and much misinformation.  There were evidently medical textbooks still in use in the 1950's flatly stating that the average human being would die after ten days of food deprivation.  It appears that 60 days is the actual rule of thumb.  This is consistent with what I have learned of the IRA hunger strikers led by Bobby Sands, whose brave and principled stand captivated me when I was younger.  Sands lasted until the 66th day of his hunger strike.  His fellow strikers succumbed at Days 61, 61, 59  .  .  .  I still admire their courage and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for a cause they believed in.

As for me, I am looking forward to ending this fast on October 29th.  It has been a unique and powerful experience, but it is also taking a toll.  The best available medical research indicates that after three weeks of a water-only fast the body enters "starvation mode."  As one fasting website so elegantly puts it, "it's all downhill after Week 3."  I am glad that my planned fast only extends three days beyond that milestone, and I plan to be even more mindful of my physical condition during those final few days.    

Day Sixteen - October 21, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Aida Yasin Ahmed.  I begin the day at church, and it again feels very good to be there.  The communion prayer urges us to be "persistent in our call for justice in this world."  This encourages me to stay strong during the remainder of my fast, which is now two-thirds completed.   My fast  is mentioned during the course of the service, as it was last Sunday.  I am left feeling somewhat embarrassed by this public mention of my fast.  The Sermon on the Mount includes an instruction from Jesus to the effect that fasting, like praying and giving to the poor, should be done in private.

I feel conflicted  about how much attention, if any, I should try to call to my decision to fast in memory of the twenty-four Haditha massacre victims.  The problem is that, for me, this fast has at least three different aspects to it.  It is, in part, a political protest against the U.S. government's immoral occupation of a foreign land.  It is also a key component of an ongoing work of art, this fast being (for lack of a better word) the "performance art" element of my "One Morning in Haditha" gallery installation/performance project.  To the extent that my fast is partly a political protest and partly an artistic undertaking, publicizing what I am doing of course makes perfect sense.  Yet there is a third and deeply personal aspect to this fast.  On some level, I am simply doing what I can to distance myself from what my government did to these innocent Iraqis in my name, and to honor their memories in some small way.  My fast therefore also has a very spiritual and private feel to it as well.  I'm not sure how to resolve the conflict, except to continue to post these daily Haditha Fast Diary entries and make myself available to people who  are interested in learning more about what I am doing. 

I spend part of my afternoon at the gallery, where I get a chance to meet John Hadden and Irene Longshore, who will be appearing at the gallery this weekend in a play written by John called "Escher's Puddle."  They will use my installation as a visual backdrop for their play, and I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

Day Seventeen - October 22, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Mohmed Yunis Salim.  Today I go online and open a derogatory (and anonymous) e-mail message sent to me last evening, my first during this fast.  The full text of the author's message is this:  "You are as worthless as a bucket of spit."  Venomous, intellectually empty, and devoid of any reasoned argument or informed position on the issue of the dehumanizing effects of soldiering, which is at the core of my "One Morning in Haditha" project.  The politics of hate are indeed on the ascendancy in this country.  Ann Coulter would be proud.  At least the author didn't use the adjective "warm."

This afternoon I am again in court, defending low-income tenants in two separate eviction cases brought by a local housing authority whose director routinely mistreats residents and violates their legal rights.  I am fortunate enough to be before a thoughtful and compassionate judge today.  He agrees with my legal argument that the eviction notices sent to my clients failed to satisfy the requirements for such notices spelled out in the lease used by the housing authority.  Both cases are thrown out of court.  I enjoy the victory.  It is a welcome distraction from my fast.

I'll end with this quote from the Marine Corps Rifleman's Creed, something which every Marine must commit to memory: "My rifle is human, even as I am human  .  .  . "  It is interesting to see how the military, even as it trains young recruits to become desensitized to killing fellow human beings, simultaneously assigns human attributes to their weaponry.  Thoreau's "black arts" phrase is indeed an apt description of this cynical (and highly effective) process, one that ends with the now-human rifle possessing greater value than the life of a demonized, subhuman "sand nigger" or "towel head." 

Day Eighteen - October 23, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Aisha Unes Salim.  I spend most of the day stuck in court, attempting without success to reach a settlement in a difficult landlord/tenant dispute.  My client is eighty years old, and at the end of the day I have to break the news to him that a return trip to court will be necessary next Friday.  We are close to an agreement with the other side, and I am hopeful that we can finalize a deal next week.  Settling disputes in a fair and reasonable manner is far better than doing battle, whether in a courtroom or in faraway lands.  What is required, among other things, is a degree of empathy for your adversary, an ability to view the situation from his or her perspective.  Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, of all people, emphasized this point in the excellent documentary film "The Fog of War."  McNamara, a chief architect of the disastrous Vietnam War, is, to his credit, a critic of the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq.  A repentant McNamara broke his silence on the Iraq War in 2004, saying "It's just wrong what we're doing.  It's morally wrong, it's politically wrong, it's economically wrong."  Aided by wisdom and insight that can only come with old age and an opportunity to reflect upon mistakes made, McNamara now concedes that America should never unilaterally invade a foreign country unless the government of that country has attacked the continental United States, Hawaii, or Alaska.  George W. Bush, unfortunately, does not strike me as one who is willing to listen to a voice tempered by experience and cautioning restraint.

This evening I am fortunate enough to attend a lecture at Brown University given by Dr. Dahlia Wasfi.  At this point in my fast, I feel very tired near the end of the day, and I am glad that Joan is able to join me and handle the driving.  Dr. Wasfi is a captivating speaker and does a particularly good job detailing the terrible public health conditions in Iraq brought about by our illegal invasion and occupation of the country.  She is an American medical doctor, born of a Jewish mother and an Iraqi father, with family still in Iraq.  She has returned to Iraq on two occasions since the U.S. invasion, and her description (and photographs) of what life is like in occupied Iraq are heartbreaking.  Dr. Wasfi has put her medical career on hold to travel the country and put a human face on the suffering in her father's homeland.  When asked what must be done to end this madness, she replies that she has given up on U.S. politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, who have proven themselves unwilling or unable to display true leadership, bravery and patriotism at a time when we need those things most from our elected officials.  Instead, Dr. Wasfi believes that the American people must now stand behind the war veterans and war resisters who daily display the courage our elected leaders do not.  These patriotic young men and women have witnessed first-hand the suffering of the Iraqi people and the violence inflicted upon them by U.S. forces.  Iraq Veterans Against The War (www.ivaw.org) and Courage To Resist (www.couragetoresist.org) are two organizations leading the fight on behalf of troops opposed to Bush's dirty war.  Courage To Resist supports the thousands of American soldiers who have become war resisters.  Showing exceptional courage, these soldiers have put their personal freedom and safety on the line because of their opposition to an illegal and immoral war.  Some (many of whom are now living with their families in Canada) have gone AWOL, others seek conscientious objector status, and still others, perhaps the bravest of all, simply publicly refuse to fight.  They are not cowards.  They are men and women of conscience.  They are true patriots.  We would do well to support them, and follow their lead.

Day Nineteen - October 24, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Sebea Yunis Salim.  This coming Saturday, the twenty-second day of my fast, thousands of protesters will be in Boston for a massive anti-war march and rally.  Boston is one of eleven cities across the nation in which the people's opposition to the continuing occupation of Iraq will be heard.  It's all part of the October 27th National Mobilization to End the Iraq War.  I would very much like to be in Boston on Saturday, surrounded by like-minded people and feeling their energy, but I have promised friends and family that I will take things slow and easy during these last few days of my Haditha fast.  I will be there in spirit.

Day Twenty - October 25, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Marwan Aiad Ahmed.  Today I attend a meeting in Providence and I am asked to say a few words about my fast.  I welcome the opportunity to share the Haditha story with a few more people.  Those in attendance have devoted their professional lives to helping disadvantaged and powerless people achieve some measure of social justice.  I look around the room and cannot help but wonder how different America would be if those at the apex of power had the social conscience and sense of fundamental fairness possessed by so many in this room.

The fast is going well, with few physical symptoms other than weight loss, fatigue, a bit of insomnia, and a nasty rash on my chest.  I do some quick online research and discover that skin irritations are fairly common when fasting, the result of accumulated toxins being flushed from the body during a water fast.  Although I am not feeling any serious adverse effects from this fast, several concerned friends and family members have asked me to check in with a doctor and I will do so tomorrow.

Day Twenty-One - October 26, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Khamisa Tuma Ali.  Today I go to the neighborhood health clinic and plunk down twenty-nine bucks to get poked and prodded, and to have my vital signs checked.  The numbers come rolling back at me: body temperature 97.6, heart rate 96 beats per minute, blood pressure 130 over 80 lying down, 112 over 78 sitting, 110 over 76 standing, pulse rate 80 lying down, 86 sitting, 90 standing  .  .  .   in plain English, all appears well and it looks like I can safely continue at this point.  I sense that the doctor is not overly enthused with what I am doing (I notice that he writes "starvation" rather than "fasting" on his chart), but he seems to take it all in stride.

Tonight at the gallery a group of actors presents a live play using my "One Morning In Haditha" installation as a backdrop and stage set.  It is the first time my artwork has been part of a live theatrical performance, and it is very exciting to see.  The performers are quite talented.  If not for this installation/performance project, our paths would probably never have crossed.  I consider myself lucky to have met them, and I hope I can collaborate with them again in the future.  The play, written and directed by John Hadden, is called "Escher's Puddle."  It is based on recorded conversations between Hadden and his father, who spent many years as a high-level CIA operative in Berlin, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere.  As a child, Hadden was unaware of what his father really did for a living, learning the truth only later in life.  Hadden's character Leo Harris, Sr. (based upon Hadden's own father) delivers a number of wonderful lines, but several in particular jump out at me.  At one point, Harris refers to Americans as "unbelievably mean and bloody," then goes on to say that Americans also "live in a dreamworld."  There is much truth to these simple observations.  We have proven ourselves to be an intolerant people, with a deep and abiding fascination with violence.  And in our naive dreamworld state, we cannot even begin to see how the victims of our mean and bloody forays view us.  Hence our amazement when our violent past comes back to haunt us.  Yet I do believe we have it within us to change.

The fictional Harris also wonders out loud why soldiers don't talk much about war, and suggests that the honest answer might be because not many of them behaved properly.  Indeed. 

Day Twenty-Two - October 27, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Rashid Abdul Hamid.  I check in on my mother today and she shares with me a beautiful poem ("Sober Song") by the Minnesota poet Barton Sutter.  The poem includes these wonderful lines: "Let me slake my thirst with water/And the sweet transparent truth."  At this stage in my fast I am very much aware of how little human beings really need to survive.  Water, of course, and also some reliable source of food after a certain amount of time without food has gone by, as well as minimal shelter from the elements.  Beyond that, it is our intangible needs (love, chiefly) that seem to matter most.  Slaking one's thirst with equal parts water and sweet transparent truth sounds like a damn good (and workable) philosophy of life, and I enjoy repeating Sutter's words to myself as this day plays itself out.

Day Twenty-Three - October 28, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of Walid Abdul Hamid Hassan.  Today is a difficult today.  My cravings for food are very intense.  I know that these sharp cravings are mostly psychological, triggered by the simple knowledge that my fast ends at midnight tomorrow, but this doesn't make them any less painful.  Unfortunately, everywhere I go today I am surrounded by reminders of food.  I attend my younger daughter's cross-country meet this afternoon, and on the long drive north it seems as though every church and every fire station is advertising a steak fry or a ham and bean supper.  At the meet itself, the smell of grilling hamburgers fills the air.  I end the day at a local church soup kitchen near my home, helping to serve the food and washing dishes afterwards.  I am counting the hours now. 

Day Twenty-Four - October 29, 2007

I am fasting today in memory of An Unidentified One-Year-Old Girl, murdered in House No. 2.  She is the one Haditha massacre victim for whom I have not been able to obtain a name.  Some day, when this bloody occupation is finally over, I would like to travel to Haditha and spend some time with the family of this little girl.  I have no idea what I would say to them.  There are no words.  Still, though, I would like to meet them.  This fast has been a very powerful and moving experience for me. I am glad that I did it and also glad that it is finally over.  I ended my fast at midnight today.  I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for the Haditha dead.  By 12:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning I was sipping some hot soup and eating toast.  Food has never tasted so good.  I have never felt so close to God.

Copyright 2007 Russ Smith
 





 
Russ Smith 2006