Other Lands Have Dreams
From Baghdad to Pekin Prison
By Kathy Kelly
Oakland, CA: CounterPunch, 2005, 173 pp., $14.95, paperback
Reviewed by Erika Munk
Kathy Kelly exemplifies a powerful model of dissent, rooted in an American tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience going back to Thoreau, and in Catholic pacifism. The Berrigans and Dorothy Day are her direct forebears. The “St. Patrick’s Day Four” protesters recently on trial in Binghampton, New York, for pouring vials of their blood on a recruiting center’s walls, windows, and flag are her comrades. For more than twenty years she has witnessed, listened, chronicled, and done time for America’s political crimes.
Other Lands Have Dreams is a collection of Kelly’s writing, meant to save under-recorded, crucial moments of recent history before they drop into the abyss of our national attention deficit disorder, and to hearten progressives. Peace activist Milan Rai, in his foreword, calls her work “inspirational,” and the publishers say in the afterword that the “literature of resistance is what inspires the next generation to go forth and battle for the good and the true. Here is a book which offers that inspiration in full measure.” I come from the last generation, not the next, and inspirational literature usually gives me the willies. But like everyone I know, I need a jolt of hope, a renewed sense of the connection between ideas and action.
“Catching Courage,” the brief first section, sketches Kelly’s early, pre-Gulf War One, life. After a few pages about her parents and childhood, she concentrates on how she “caught” the will to resist from teachers and friends, and how her teenage revulsion against racism and violence grew into the desire to make her actions “follow conviction, regardless of inconvenience.” (By those last three words she means: forsaking all comfort while risking freedom and even life.) At St. Paul High School in Chicago, her teachers compared the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. to the gospels, and she read about Dan Berrigan. Later, the writings and presence of various pacifists and priests influenced her deeply. In 1977, she left the Chicago Theological Seminary for a Catholic Worker house in uptown Chicago and soon became a war tax refuser: lowering her salary below the taxable minimum, she denied the IRS money for arms.
In 1986, after a trip to Nicaragua, Kelly quit her teaching job to protest the “terrible and evil thing” the United States was doing by financing the contra war. She “found it intolerable to be comfortably at liberty in a country where people will stand by or accede to crimes against the life of another,” and needed to strip herself of professional obligations: the protests she and her husband were planning meant being prepared for arrest.
And arrested she was: fifty or so times in this country, also in Israel, Croatia, Haiti, and Italy. Her offenses were imaginative, even witty—planting corn on nuclear missile silos, climbing a wall at a PSYOPS (Army Psychological Operations) facility, singing alternative Christmas carols at a Chicago mall (“We three crooks of contra-gate, lie and steal and manipulate … Oh, Ohhhh, shred the documents, shred the tapes, shred the proof and leave no trace.”) Kelly portrays her coconspirators with affection; she seems always to have found good people to be brave with. I don’t think she uses the word “solidarity,” but that’s how she “caught” her courage. It’s an exemplary story. Kelly followed the inexorable logic of her political, ethical heart, and credits the people who gave her the strength to do so.
Oddly, however, she doesn’t credit their ideas. Although Kelly’s mentors were clearly animated by liberation theology, Kelly writes almost nothing about religion. She says her “beliefs are quite simple: that nonviolence and pacifism can change the world, that the poor should be society’s highest priority, that people should love their enemies.” She says nothing about the particular, and rather wonderful, moment in Roman Catholicism that encouraged these beliefs. I’m a third-generation atheist, so this should be a relief; instead it seems disingenuous. Right before the current Iraq war, Kelly joined a Catholic Peace Team on the Kuwait-Iraq border: “Facing U.S. soldiers … we at one point spontaneously knelt, praying that the U.S. military would not cross the line.” Clearly God did not answer, and clearly his silence did not shake her faith. Kelly addresses her book to a general audience that probably has no idea what doctrinal reasons underpin her acceptance of his denial; still, they may wonder what rock this is upon which she builds her politics. I certainly did.
This was the moment that first roused my inner skeptic, the grumbler who refuses to let me enjoy a bit of uplift without bringing me down, nattering on about meaning. She noticed that Kelly never mentions abortion or any other aspect of the Church’s sexual attitudes (and later in the book talks about militarism, the Middle East, and women’s prisons, all without gender politics). She wondered whether Kelly was trying to avoid any position that might offend her readers. From then on, my reading was a tug of war between admiration and disappointment.
The book’s second section contains Kelly’s letters from her travels to Iraq between 1996 and 2003. She and the group she cofounded, Voices in the Wilderness (ViW), made over seventy trips carrying medical supplies, in deliberate violation of the UN sanctions that followed the first Gulf War—sanctions that were, as she says, a weapon of mass destruction. To protest this humanitarian disaster, ViW also fasted, walked from the Pentagon to the United Nations, organized prayer vigils, and disrupted then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s speeches by holding up photos of dying Iraqi children. (Albright had said, when asked about the deaths that resulted from the sanctions, “We think the price is worth it.”)
Kelly tells story after story about anguished mothers, dying children, heroic doctors, and the bureaucratic callousness of the UN and US. She stayed in Iraq during the war’s early “shock and awe” campaign, leaving only later in the spring of 2003. Her stories are grievous, frightening, and enraging, and I don’t doubt them for a moment. When she published them at the time, on line, she wanted to “draw the sympathies of people toward the plight of innocent people here … who wonder, even as the bombs terrify them, why they can’t live as brothers and sisters with people in America.” This part of her book will be a revelation to anyone who has never read about the sanctions or about what happens to civilians in air war.
For anyone who has, though, it’s not enough. Bringing in medicine was a brave act of mercy, but ViW had to compromise to accomplish it. Kelly speaks of her group’s public silence about the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a trade-off for access to neighborhoods, families, hospitals, and schools. She deserves three cheers for serving “as witnesses to our own government’s war,” but only one for the extent to which her published witness still reflects the trade-off. Thus she says the US, “a modern-day Herod, deadly, vengeful, and reckless, pursue[d] the little ones of Basra,” when everyone knows, or should, that Saddam Hussein also pursued the little ones of Basra, and their parents. Yes, Americans are responsible primarily for their own country’s crimes, and she may well feel that plenty of attention has already been paid to Saddam’s. But I wish she had taken the care to argue this through.My inner skeptic was in great form by this point, and feeling cranky about Kelly’s rhetoric of suffering, which always involves “innocent victims,” usually children. Why do victims have to be innocent, whatever that means? Most civilian victims these days are women and children, but would it be better if they were adult men? Aren’t a lot of soldiers “innocent” too? The bomb (or sanction) that falls on them doesn’t care about their moral status, and we shouldn’t either.
Anyway, neither ViW’s actions nor politer forms of dissent (three of the top UN officials in Iraq resigned to protest sanctions) succeeded; sanctions were replaced only by war. Kelly blames the press, asking, “What if the U.S. media had steadily covered the scandal of using economic sanctions to target Iraq’s most vulnerable people?” She contrasts their uninterest in the sanctions to the extensive coverage of Abu Ghraib: “I can’t help but wonder why the images of suffering Iraqi children never raised equivalent concern or indignation in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world.” But she’s forgetting, perhaps out of good-hearted optimism, that in the case of Abu Ghraib, public concern and indignation failed to bring those ultimately responsible for torture to justice. Quite the opposite—just look at Alberto Gonzalez. At a panel on genocide a few years ago, David Rieff caused a shudder of indignation in the audience when he said that had Auschwitz been covered by TV, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Perhaps he was right. Not an inspirational thought.
Kelly’s notes from American jails follow the Iraq section. After the exhilaration of action, of performing righteous deeds in horrible circumstances, she found herself in the closed, despairing spaces of prison. Our system is cruel as well as irrational, with insanely long sentences for victimless offenses and an inmate population that has quadrupled over the past twenty years to 2.1 million—more than that of any other country, over half the world’s prisoners. Of these, 1.24 million were charged with nonviolent crimes, 78 percent of them drug-related. Kelly supports the most radical of prison reforms: abolition. Take the $400 billion we spend annually on the military, she says, and use it to “develop the necessary structures for confronting crime and fostering restitution and community safety, and for rehabilitating individuals and groups guilty of endangering the common good.” Utopian ideas, thus worth thinking about. Kelly’s stories of individual women prisoners are unstereotyped, more intimate than her portrayals of Iraqis, with more surprises. But the connections between the ruthless stupidity of our prison system and of our imperial adventures are stated, not explored.
“Horizons and Hopes,” the conclusion, is like reaching the end of dinner with a bright-eyed activist who at midnight suddenly slumps into exhausted depression. Kelly opens with the story of her mistreatment by military police after a nonviolent protest in 2003 at the US army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security (formerly the School of the Americas), famous for training members of the Latin American military in torture. During the demonstration, 27 people were civilly disobedient, stepping onto the base, carrying crosses to commemorate people murdered by the school’s graduates. According to Kelly, there had been similar protests for thirteen years, without misbehavior on either side. This time she was hogtied, kneeled on, threatened with pepper spray, then shackled with wrist and ankle chains. As she says, “If this is what the U. S. Army MPs will do … to a graying 105-pound peace activist in full view of priests and nuns as witnesses,” imagine what they do in Iraq, without witnesses. (The grumbler doesn’t see why priests and nuns are better witnesses than anyone else.)
American brutalization is an ever grimmer though not new horizon. Not, indeed, what activists usually consider a horizon at all. But then there’s hope. On the last page Kelly presents her notion of hope in the form of a proverb she heard in Haiti ten years ago: “You can’t bury water, and you can’t bury truth.” What a slogan! It’s at once false and invigorating. Of course truth can be buried, and you don’t have to be a nay-sayer to know that. The world is a mass grave of buried truth. The point, as Kelly and the members of ViW proved over and over again, is to defy the forces that want to keep it buried, and dig it up. The parts of her book that show her in the act of defiance, daring to “follow conviction, regardless of inconvenience,” are indeed inspiring. As for the rest—I think she hasn’t paid proper attention to pessimism of the intellect, which must always balance optimism of the will.
Erika Munk is a critic and journalist whose writing about theater, crime, the war in what was Yugoslavia and other subjects appeared mostly in the Village Voice from the mid 1970s until the mid-1990s. She was the editor of Theater, a triquarterly published by Yale, from 1992-2004, and is now teaching and writing a book.