various artists,
Stoking the Fires of Resistance:
A Musical History of the
U.S. War on the Iraqi People

(Voices in the Wilderness, 2001)

Recently, the United States has been accused by other nations of being too insular. However, there are many Americans who look beyond their borders, particularly when they are working to right what they are feel are injustices to innocent people. This release, from late 2001, is a benefit CD for Voices in the Wilderness, which, according to its press release, is "an organization working to end the sanctions against the people of Iraq." That statement in itself is not bound to be a popular one in the United States right now. However, what with President Bush's recent speech about the "axis of evil" -- namely Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- and rumors about a possible American attack on Iraq, the songs on Stoking the Fires of Resistance take on even more importance in showing another side to the Iraq-U.S. situation.

Each song shows its own bias, its own propaganda. Politicians would claim them to have a liberal bias, and the spirit of some of the songs hearkens back to American anti-Vietnam protests in the '60s and early '70s. The CD booklet mentions "the ongoing U.S. war against the Iraqi people," an assertion bound to infuriate American conservatives. The point behind the CD is to demonstrate that innocent Iraqis have been horribly hurt by years of U.S. sanctions meant to diminish Saddam Hussein.

The performers are successful at pointing out often-unnoticed ironies. In the opening track, "The War Has Been Coming Home," Charlie King asks, "How can we say yes to a war in the Gulf/And no to the war in your streets?" He points out how people were horrified by the Oklahoma City bombings, particularly the fact that a number of children were killed in those atrocities. However, he also discusses smart bombs destroying buildings in Baghdad and how families there have no place to run nor hide. With the title alone, King tries to demonstrate how America is part of the world -- how people can be scared anywhere. It may be a chilling message, especially when it's understood that the song was written in 1995 -- long prior to September 11th.

A number of songs, such as King's, directly reference Baghdad and Iraq. Several of the performers traveled to Baghdad and their songs are based on first-hand observations. The CD booklet also is filled with black-and-white photographs of Iraqis who have suffered due to bombs, missiles, poor sanitation and meager medical facilities. Asenath Stanaway's "Mariam's Song," performed by Dove 2000, is about a then 4-year-old Iraqi girl who was brought to England for leukemia treatment. The caption next to her photo explains that while the treatment cured her cancer, it also made her blind. "Madeleine," written and performed by Minna Bromberg, is a direct address to former American secretary of state Madeleine Albright regarding Albright's remark about how U.S. sanctions were a "very hard choice," but "we think the price is worth it." Bromberg's anger at what she considers a caustic remark is evident as she implores Albright to "Have the strength to stand/Have the strength to say/Not one more child will die by hand today." It's a tough accusation to make, and, interestingly, Bromberg begins the song by addressing Albright as follows: "Madeleine, from one Jewess to another." It's a slightly eyebrow-raising apostrophe since Albright only discovered her Jewish heritage later in life.

This CD doesn't mean to show both sides of the story, but it does show another viewpoint that isn't always given equal time. A lot of anger is expressed, along with hope for the future. Utah Phillips, probably the best-known performer on the compilation, says his contribution was inspired when he was traveling the U.S. on tour at the start of the Gulf War. To protest a war that he felt simply was about oil, he didn't drive; he took trains and buses on his tour of the American Northwest. While at a stop in Idaho, he wore a peace button into a restaurant. The man next to him took offense to Phillips' button and knocked him down to the floor. "I always figured the surest way to find out if you're really a pacifist or not is probably somewhere on your way to the floor. I got up, shook his hand, and offered to buy him a cop of coffee. Turned out we were both vets."

The song that came out of incident is "Yellow Ribbon," and its simple chorus perhaps sums up the hopes behind all of the anti-war songs: "The guns will all be silent/And the battle flags all furled/When we tie a yellow ribbon/'Round the world."

Perhaps Phillips' wish is too simple, too impossible, or even too idealistic. However, the idea of "peace in our time" truly isn't a bad one.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 16 March 2002