Autopsy of a Funeral

If politics makes for strange bedfellows, perhaps photo opportunities at funerals make for something even stranger. As President Bush approached the supine body of John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica – hoping that some of the pope's charisma would rub off – the close proximity of the two men was deeply disturbing. On one hand, there was the pope, a man who was faithful to the message of the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." Beside him stood the president, a man who had violated that teaching by launching an unprovoked war.

Out with the Ten Commandments, In with Regime Change

To make things worse, the president was the leader of a faux-religious pro-war gang that unilaterally had taken upon itself the mantle of an unrecognizably twisted version of Christianity. In so doing, it had violated six of the Ten Commandments in a very short time. In addition to substituting a nationalistic worship of the all-powerful state in place of the deity, they repeatedly took God's name in vain with bumper stickers touting slogans such as "God bless America." Furthermore, in their quest to overturn the warning, "Thou shalt not kill," they laid waste to an entire nation and snuffed out the lives of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians – which have been trivialized as "collateral damage" by the American press. In addition, the war has cost the lives of 1,500-plus American soldiers who sought to honor their uniforms by taking part in a dishonorable mission at the behest of a representative of one of America's least-respected professions: a politician. Of course, the pretext for launching this war was a hallmark case of bearing false witness, and the prospect of rich rewards in the form of cheap oil was a source of covetousness whose ultimate end would amount to confiscating the Iraqi oil fields, otherwise known as theft. Six, count ’em six violated commandments.

The Pope on Iraq

Having passed away earlier in the week, the pope was no longer in a position to make known his feelings about the matter. Then again, perhaps John Paul II did not have to miraculously rise out of his coffin under his own power, admonish the president, and point out the long list of ironies that sprang to mind. The vast crowd of onlookers outside the basilica did it for him – booing whenever the face of President Bush appeared on the giant TV screens scattered around St. Peter's Square. Mindful that John Paul II was the first pope from Poland and that he had vigorously opposed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his successors in the Kremlin, perhaps onlookers could not help but take note of the many parallels between Soviet-Polish relations and those between the United States and Iraq – not to mention those between the United States and the many nations it has attempted to control throughout the Middle East, Central and South America, and (let's not forget Vietnam and Korea) East Asia. As visitors to this website have been reminded, John Paul II and his representatives chastised the president many times about the war in Iraq. Just as most Roman Catholic clerics, the pope was mindful of the centuries-old concept of a "just war," and the facts about Iraq and the United States did not fulfill those criteria. Consequently, the juxtaposition of the pope and the president was a sight rich in ironies.

Poland after World War II; Iraq Today

But the list of papal-presidential ironies goes far beyond the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq. In the aftermath of World War II, which the U.S. and its allies waged in response to Hitler's war of aggression against Poland, the homeland of the pope was never freed. Instead, that overwhelmingly Catholic country was handed over to the Soviet Union – beginning a 45-year span of Soviet domination that was countenanced by the very allies that claimed to have sought Polish freedom by entering the war in the first place. Under the domination of Stalin, events in Poland took on a character that bears an eerie resemblance to what has been happening in Iraq. Here are a few highlights:

  • Protégés in Power: As Professor Norman Davies points out in his two-volume work, God's Playground: A History of Poland: "the political history of post-war Poland is extremely simple. It tells how the USSR handed power to its chosen protégés, and how it has kept them in place ever since." Similarly, for the past 25 years, United States presidents have alternately supported Saddam Hussein when he did their bidding (as in his war against Iran) and opposed him when he refused (as when he rejected a U.S.-backed oil pipeline and later invaded Kuwait in response to Kuwait's practice of slant-drilling for oil located in Iraqi territory).
  • Puppet Regimes: In August of 1944, Joseph Stalin installed loyal supporters in key positions of the Polish Committee of National Liberation, which became the provisional government of Poland. This resembles the process by which the United States, after removing Saddam Hussein, installed Ahmad Chalabi as leader of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi, who manufactured fake "intelligence" about WMDs and was subsidized to the tune of $350,000 each month by the Bush administration, was convicted of bank fraud in Jordan early in 2005. He was replaced by another U.S.-backed dictator, Iyad Allawi, who was accused of murdering innocent civilians while employed as Saddam Hussein's right-hand man. Will the U.S. tolerate an elected anti-American government in Iraq? History tells us the answer: no.
  • Death Toll: During World War II, nearly 5.4 million Poles were executed, and the city of Warsaw was leveled. Like Hitler, Stalin is famous for decimating segments of the Polish population – rounding up undesirable persons and sending them to no-return concentration camps. Consequently, Stalin's regime is recognized as the bloodiest in the 20th century, claiming 42 million victims in the Soviet Union alone according to R.J. Rummel (Death by Government). While it may be true that Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the number of victims resulting from U.S. intervention in Iraq may surpass Saddam's total. As of 1995, the U.N. estimated that 567,000 Iraqi children died as a result of five years of sanctions on behalf of the U.S. This total continued to climb during the last half of the 1990s as the sanctions continued. Furthermore, since Operation Iraqi Freedom (sic) has added 100,000 more civilians to this nightmarish tally, the United States is now responsible for 700,000 dead Iraqis. Like Warsaw during World War II, the city of Fallujah was transformed into a ghost town. Who was more deadly to the Iraqis, Saddam or the U.S.?
  • Censorship: Under the Soviet system of pre-emptive censorship, no information was free or accessible unless it was specifically prescribed by law. Consequently, when the Soviet Union "liberated" Poland from the Nazis, it demanded complete submission. Poles who resisted were branded as terrorists, bandits, and fascists. Does this sound familiar? After suffering for decades under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are now subject to the dictator Iyad Allawi. Those who oppose him are called insurgents, terrorists, and militants – not patriots. To ensure that the correct words are used to describe them, Mr. Allawi "temporarily" closed down the independently minded Al Jazeera news service last year in the name of "freedom." It remains closed.
  • Militarism: In Soviet-dominated Poland, militarism overwhelmed the nation's economy. According to Professor Davies, "Eastern Europe was turned into an armed camp. Frontiers were closed. Security was returned to wartime footing. The economy was converted to military priorities. Military conscription…was reintroduced." The same can be said of both Iraq and the United States today. In Iraq, the monthly total of civilians killed by American soldiers on highways and at roadblocks continues to soar, and the nation is occupied by the U.S. military and the U.S.-dominated Iraqi army. Here in the United States, the national-security state is casting a huge shadow on the economy – as it did during the War in Vietnam. Companies are making fortunes on security and surveillance systems that target U.S. citizens, and the production of armaments weighs heavily on the voluntary sector of the economy. Furthermore, a revival of the military draft looms over the future of millions of young people as the Bush administration promises that the so-called War on Terror will be a long one.

The Papal Example

During the period of Soviet domination of Poland, Karol Wojtyła opposed the tenets of totalitarian collectivism – whether in the form of Nazism or Stalinism. In 1942 he entered an underground seminary to fulfill his religious aspirations, and he was ordained a priest in 1946. Afterward, he illegally celebrated Roman Catholic Masses and became the youngest bishop in Poland. After his election as pope in 1978, his support of the Polish Solidarity movement led Mikhail Gorbachev to claim that the fall of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without him. Unlike political leaders in the Soviet Union and the United States, the pope did not liberate people by killing them. He did not create "collateral damage" while supporting his Polish countrymen during the Solidarity struggle from 1981 to 1989. Instead, he led by example.

Despite the past hypocrisies of its leaders and the lack of principles on the part of so many of its citizens, the United States was once considered an exemplar of freedom, a beacon on a hill. Unfortunately, it has devolved into a 21st-century stand-in for the former Soviet Union – seeking global hegemony in a quest for cheap resources. This evil habit is undermining its few remaining freedoms, and it is bankrupting Americans both economically and morally. In trading a free republic for the tawdry rewards of empire, the United States has lost what once made it worthy of emulation.

When President Bush attended the pope's funeral, he should have approached the event with an altogether different set of priorities. Instead of basking in the halo-effect of John Paul II and gaining a temporary, second-hand charisma by his close physical proximity to the pope's lifeless body, he should have taken into his heart the living message of peace that the pope embodied throughout his earthly journey. Then, instead of returning home with only a photographic souvenir that would eventually fade along with the up-tick in his poll numbers, the president would have carried in his heart the same vibrant spirit that made John Paul II what he was.

April 14, 2005

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts