Witness to war
Vietnam War hero and Northern California peace advocate Charlie Liteky journeyed to Baghdad and back again
The people had been waiting forever for the bombs to drop.
So, when the first of them fell out of the sky over Baghdad on March 20, Charlie Liteky was as prepared as anyone. Jarred awake just after 4 a.m. on the fourth floor of the Andalus hotel in the eastern part of Iraq’s capital city, Liteky soon was patrolling the hotel corridors floor by floor, making sure everybody was awake and ready for what was happening.
The war was finally on.
“You could feel the shock waves,” said Liteky, a former priest, a Vietnam War hero and the subject of the SN&R cover story “An American in Baghdad,” published the week before the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. “The explosions were huge; the noise was horrendous,” he said. Every time he heard a blast, he wondered how many more innocent people were dead.
Liteky, who returned just last week to his wife, Judy, and their San Francisco home, spent five months in Baghdad because he felt compelled to stand in solidarity with Iraqi civilians and be an eyewitness to a war he opposed. He was not embedded, he was free to come and go as he pleased, and he was independent (for the most part) of Iraqi government “minders.” His is the saga of one peace advocate’s experiences at ground zero as the war passed from preparation to invasion to occupation.
Like many watching on TV from America, Liteky expected more firepower to be used at the start of the war. “I was expecting more in the way of shock and awe,” he said. Soon, it became clear to him and others in Voices in the Wilderness (a Chicago peace delegation that has carried out nonviolent vigils in Iraq since 1996 to protest U.N. sanctions) that residential areas of Baghdad mostly were being spared by the U.S. bombing campaign. Still, there were stray hits all around the city. “The people suffered terribly,” said Liteky. Indeed, a group that tracks and verifies casualty rates estimates that between 2,200 and 2,700 civilians were killed in the war, along with about 140 American soldiers and more than 10,000 Iraqi soldiers.
Between bombing raids, Liteky ventured out to visit sites where errant missiles had struck. He walked through demolished neighborhoods and heard horror stories about people who’d been killed or buried alive. He described sorting through the wreckage in one neighborhood where a missile had smashed four dwellings, turning them to rubble. At least three families were killed in that incident. One elderly woman had been trapped, and it took her horrified neighbors five hours to dig her out.
While visiting a hospital, Liteky saw a newly orphaned 12-year-old boy who had just undergone a bilateral amputation on both arms. Thirty percent of his body was burned below the neck. Liteky heard the boy ask the doctor, “Will I always be this way?”
Liteky offered his services to the doctor but was told the hospital didn’t need more hands at that time; what it needed was medicine. Indeed, Liteky learned that during the war, surgery routinely was done at the hospital without the benefit of anesthesia.
Vigil at the Tigris
As the bombing campaign continued those first days, Liteky and a handful of others from his group determined to set up a vigil at the Al Wathba water-treatment facility located north and east of downtown Baghdad. The plant—where flow from the Tigris River pours into various reservoirs for treatment—supplies safe water for many in the city, with its population of 6 million. Because several treatment plants had been bombed by U.S. forces in the Gulf War of 1991, Liteky and the others decided they should position themselves there. “I felt that if that plant was bombed, that would be a war crime, and somebody had to be there to witness it.”
Within days, the other delegates decided to pursue other actions and returned to the hotel. Liteky—the quintessential loner—decided to remain and continue the vigil at the water facility by himself. Camped out in a small tent on a patch of dried-up lawn at the plant near one of its huge, 9-foot-deep treatment ponds, Liteky spent many days roaming the grounds alone on his bike, praying, visiting nearby bombing sites, cooking meals of eggs and squash, and listening to the war (mostly on the BBC and Voice of America) on a shortwave radio.
Early one morning, a firefight broke out outside the 12-foot walls surrounding the plant. Liteky couldn’t see much, but he heard automatic rifle fire, grenades and machine-gun blasts. A bullet whistled by Liteky’s ear close enough—phhht—for him to hear it. “The sound took me straight back to December 5, 1967,” said Liteky, referring to the day in Vietnam when, under intense enemy machine-gun and rocket fire, he saved the lives of 23 men. This time, Liteky had no such mission. He laid flat on the ground for half an hour until the battle was suppressed, presumably by U.S. troops.
Another morning, as the bombing drew close to his environs, Liteky witnessed a large group of terrorized-looking women in traditional black robes running with their children into the compound near where he was camped. Unable to speak Arabic, Liteky could not ask what they ran from. He found out later that the women and children were family members of the men who worked in the treatment plant and were fleeing bombs that had landed too close to home.
Liteky kept up his vigil at the plant into the first week of April, a few days before the war was over. “Once it was clear they weren’t going to bomb it, I left,” he said. He felt relieved of that particular duty.
He returned to downtown Baghdad just as American troops were arriving, with their parade of Army tanks and Bradley vehicles. U.S. soldiers parked their tanks and uncoiled barbed wire at the intersections, including right outside the Palestine Hotel, and set up checkpoints. “The U.S. had absolute, unquestionable military superiority,” said Liteky. “They just moved right through. It was a cakewalk.”
Looting and burning
Once Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard and his government “minders” disappeared from Baghdad (“they just melded back into the population,” said Liteky) the onetime Medal of Honor winner became witness to a new phase of the war: the occupation.
Liteky said the ordinary Iraqi people seemed clearly relieved—some were even jubilant—once Hussein and his guards were gone. But relief quickly gave way to fear as it became evident that the United States had no plan for how to impose law and order after the war, he said. “They allowed looting to take place on a grand scale. This part should have been planned as meticulously as the bombing, but it wasn’t. And the people suffered a great deal because of it.”
The anarchy and chaos that prevailed during this period were as dangerous for people as when the war was going on. Everyone had guns. People were afraid to leave their homes. Shops were closed up tight. One member of Voices in the Wilderness, Michael Birmingham, was attacked and robbed by a group of seven men just a block away from the hotel. Liteky himself witnessed looting; he saw people hauling furniture, copy machines and computers out of buildings. Fortunately, he had left his bike at a water-treatment plant, so his one possession of value could not be stolen.
Once the looting died down, Liteky initiated a personal campaign that involved talking one-on-one to the U.S. soldiers who, almost to a person, told him they were there to liberate the Iraqi people. “They were well-mannered, well-spoken,” said Liteky with honest admiration. “They were just kids. I began to feel for them because they were doing what they thought was right. I’d had the same mind-set in Vietnam. I’d accepted the just-war theory, too.”
Liteky decided he would write the soldiers an open letter to make the point that the war was immoral and illegal. His plan was to compose the letter, make a lot of copies and hand it out at checkpoints to the soldiers. Because he couldn’t find a working copy machine in Baghdad, Liteky joined a convoy and made the dangerous trek to Amman, Jordan, for the purpose of making 100 photocopies. The treacherous road between the two cities—compared often to the lawless highway seen in the movie Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, with its hundreds of old tanker trucks scattered on the roadside—had become the site of increasingly fierce highway robberies. But Liteky’s caravan made the passage, coming and going, without incident.
Back in Baghdad, Liteky began the hand-to-hand distribution of his letter to soldiers. In the document, Liteky introduced himself and his cause. “As a veteran of an ill-fated war, in the waning years of my life, I’d like to share some reflections on my country’s attack on Iraq,” he wrote. The U.S. government “claiming liberation of the Iraqi people as a just cause for a war that killed thousands of innocents is hypocrisy at its worst,” the letter continues.
Liteky said the soldiers did not react negatively to him or to the letter. “One soldier told me the next day he’d read my letter and found it very interesting,” Liteky said. Another soldier told him: “I agree with you 100 percent.” (Find the letter here)
By the time he was readying to leave Iraq for good, said Liteky, the situation in Baghdad was deteriorating—with little media remaining to cover the development. Electricity was only partially on in the city, and the water supply in huge swaths of Baghdad was contaminated. Food supplies were running out. Liteky was approached for the first time by older men on the streets, who made desperate motions with their hands to their mouths to say that they needed food, that they were starving. “It was really sad to see,” said Liteky. “Basically, I think the U.S. is very good at destroying things but not good at creating things.”
Now that Liteky is back home, he plans to continue his activism—to speak, to write and, as he says, to “confront the power” for the cause of peace. “So much of the violence in the world is coming from the U.S.,” he said. “I want to work here now with others about addressing the violence that is right here.”
Having spent much time during his Baghdad stay working as volunteer at a Mother Teresa orphanage, Liteky stopped in at the place last week to say goodbye. “I wanted to visit the children one last time,” he said with emotion. Liteky was surprised and touched when the mother superior at the orphanage gave him a special farewell gift, a beautiful, pearl-white string of rosary beads with which to pray. Liteky, a former Catholic priest who now considers himself a member of all faiths—“a member of the universal church,” he says—accepted the rosary. He holds the beads sometimes now so as to better remember the war, the soldiers, the children … the lessons he learned from his sojourn to Baghdad and back again.