-- Political Issues: War in Iraq --
This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn about the War in Iraq.
28 January 2004 - Bruce Cockburn has returned from Iraq. A regular visitor to The Cockburn Project submitted this interview today to share with our readership. It's the first full interview that we know of that's been published. Please visit: CounterPunch to read about their organization and learn more about them.
An Interview with Bruce Cockburn
"We're All Lied To"
By MIKE FERNER
Oriental Palace Hotel, Baghdad
Recently I interviewed singer, songwriter and musician, Bruce
Cockburn, at the end of his weeklong visit to Iraq hosted by the
American Friends Service Committee. As I write this introduction in a
Baghdad hotel on Karrada Street, a diesel generator roars on the
sidewalk below, providing power for an electrical system savaged by a
decade of sanctions and two wars. The generator is drowned out only
when U.S. fighter planes and helicopters roar overhead.
Cockburn's latest release, "You've Never Seen Everything," is one of over two dozen discs the Montreal artist has released,
including "Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu," "Dancing in
the Dragon's Jaws," and "Trouble with Normal." Cockburn had a few choice comments on some of his favorite topics and then we got down
to some questions.
On what he hears from people in Iraq:
"Increasingly, people will tell you that they feel one dictatorship
has been replaced by another; that they have more freedom of thought
now than they had before but they don't have freedom of movement."
On truth in advertising:
"We were all lied to. The Iraqi people were all lied to. And I guess
we're still being lied to. I mean, Tony Blair is still trying to say
there were weapons of mass destruction even when the Bush
administration is admitting little by little that there weren't. It's
so much bullshit and at such a price."
On the gatekeepers of reality:
" Yes, it was hopeful (the global protests on February 15, 2003 against war in Iraq), but how much did you see about it in the American press? Not a damn thing. I talked to friends of mine in L.A. who never knew that the protests happened, and these aren't the kinds of people who don't read the paper. In Monteal on that day, I was in the march. There were 120,000 people in -30 degree weather! They had another march a month later when the weather was nicer and a quarter of a million people turned out. That's a quarter of the population of Montreal! That's unbelievable. That was the biggest one in North America but it had its counterpart in many American cities...but Americans aren't even being allowed to know what other Americans are doing. This is not too different from what I saw happen in the 80's when I started touring with "Rocket Launcher." I was playing in a room with a thousand people...you could see it when people looked at each other and said, "holy shit, I'm not alone." All these people really felt cut off. That's what I decided music could do. I don't think songwriters can change the world, but music can offer a rallying point for a body of opinion that people already have."
On compassionate conservatism:
A: "These people (Bush administration) don't care who they kill, whether it's Iraqis or American soldiers. "
Q: Why are you here in Iraq?
A: "Officially I'm part of a delegation that includes Bishop Gumbleton
of Detroit and we've come here to assess the humanitarian situation
in Iraq. I just wanted to see it up close and I want to understand as
much as I can of what's going on here. I don't think the media has
given a very fair reporting of what's happened, although the Canadian
media has generally been better than the U.S. In a way, that's an
after-the-fact rationale, because as an artist, I feel it's my
responsibility to witness things and try to grasp them. Once in a
while I get lucky and my understading of those things become songs.
That's not a given and I think it would be self serving to the point
of obscenity to come to a place like this looking for song material,
but I hope that a song can be inspired by what I see."
Q: During the U.S.-backed war against the government of Nicaragua in
the 1980's, you wrote the song "Rocket Launcher." If it's fair to say
that that was an angry song, a) what were you angry about when you
wrote it; and b) do you feel as though you'd write a similar song
A: ""If I Had a Rocket Launcher" was written about a particular time and place. The situation that inspired it called for outrage--at
least that's what it elicited from me. I think it's fair to say that
outrage is an appropriate response. Had I had a rocket launcher on
that particular ocassion, I don't know that I'd have used it and I'm
glad I didn't because I didn't have to make the choice."
"The situation was that I'd spent three days in a couple of different
Guatemalan refugee camps in Chiapas, in southern Mexico. All the
while we were in one of them we could hear one or more helicopters
patrollling the border. The week before we were there and the week
after we left, this helicopter strafed the camp--as if these people
had not suffered enough with the incredible violence they were
fleeing in the mountains of Guatemala. The eyewitness accounts they
told us were just horrendous...their food ration was only three
tortillas a day... no medicines...but still, sitting there with
courage and a capacity to celebrate. When they found out I was
musician, they brought a marimba that they had carried in pieces from
their village...they all got out their best clothes, the kids danced,
and they had a party."
"It just made me cry and still does when I think about it. That spirit
they showed in face of such incredible difficulty...the implications
of that helipcopter going back and forth, made me feel that the
people in the helicopter had forfeited any claim to humanity and I
just felt this incredible outrage...I felt it much more strongly than
the Mayans did. I didn't hear a word of anger from anyone about
anything they'd experienced, but I felt it. After I got out of the
camp I was sitting in my hotel, drinking and crying and writing that
song. For me, writing the song was just to get it off my chest and I
wrestled with whether to record it or ever perform it in front of
anyone. I thought if I don't, that's self censorship which is
inherently bad, but also, the feelings I had were probably not very
much different from those that anybody of my background would have
had in those circumstances, so it seemed important to share it with
people of my background--with my audience. I think most people
understood that it was not a call to arms but a cry of outrage. Yes,
it was cathartic for a lot of people. I remember meeting Charlie
Clemons, a doctor and a Viet Nam vet, when Rocket Launcher was being
played on the radio. I felt a little sheepish, because here was this
guy who'd been in a war, and I had not, and he'd decided to be a
pacifist. I felt kind of weird knowing he was in the audience when I
was singing this song, and I asked him about it later. He said, "It
was what we all wanted to hear!""
"I don't know if I'd ever write another song like "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." That experience (in southern Mexico) was really my first
experience with the real third world. That first time in the refugee
camp was my first experience seeing such poverty up close like that.
Since then I've seen it lots of times in lots of parts of the world,
so things don't hit me with quite the same vividness after the first
time. But that being said, there's a lot going on here to be outraged
about, certainly, among them the hypocrisy of the American
administration who claim to be Christians and operating from a basis
of faith, and who are conspicuously not loving their neighbor in this
country. It's hard to get words around the enormity of what's going
on here, and I'm not sure if I have much perspective on it yet, but
clearly the war in Iraq was not about freeing the people of Iraq from
an onerous dictatorship. It was not about weapons of mass
destruction. It was not about a relationship between Saddam Hussein
and Al Qaida. That's obvious without coming to Iraq, but it's doubly
obvious when you come here and you see who's paying the price for
this war. Aside from the American taxpayers, who I don't think fully
realize the price they are paying, it's the people of Iraq that are
paying--the increasing numbers of homeless people living in bombed-
out buildings, whole families strugling as best they can with 60% of
the population out of work, the economy just absolutely shattered and
nothing being done to rehabilitate it...who knows what the future
holds, but from the point of view of the aveage Iraqi it's clear that
everything being done is about Bush's potential in the next election.
Every Iraqi I talk to says that. It's very clear to them that it's
all about electioneering."
Q: What difference does it make if an artist expresses anger or
dissatisfaction with political policies?
A: "In terms of commenting on government policy, I'm a citizen
talking, not an artist. I'm a citizen of Canada but also a citizen of
the world and obviously, the decisions made by the United States
effect all of us greatly. As an artist I feel it's my job to grasp
whatever I can of the human condition and distill it into some
communicable form, through song, and in so doing, create a vehicle
for the sharing of experiences among people. Everybody filters a song
through their own experience when they hear it. But allowing for
that, there's still a common bond especially in a live performance,
where you have a group of people in a room together and the song then
becomes a vehicle for the sharing of their feelings in that room at
that time. I think that's a really important part of what I do. With
that in mind it's down to me to try to grasp as much of the human
experience as I can and keep that distillation process going."
Q: What do you feel you've gotten from the people of Iraq while
you've been here, and what do you hope to give?
A: "Well, I'd like to think I can offer some help to people who can
use it. We will have made a great step forward if we can communicate
the humanity of people here to the human instincts of friends back
home. Too often I think North Americans see Iraqis as a bunch of
camel herders. I don't think people have a very good idea of who
lives here. And who lives here are just like the people of North
America--doctors and lawyers and architects and farmers and laborers
and people of all walks of life, just like home. The educational
system, until the sanctions took hold in the early 90's was just
exellent, so there' a lot of really well educated people in this
country. But that's another sore point with the Iraqis--none of that
education and technical ability is being tapped by the Americans at
all. Iraqis aren't being tapped for anything other than menial jobs
and security forces in the case of the police. There are people here
in this country perfectly capable of rebuilding the country if they
just have the resources, but they're not being allowed to participate."
"It always gives me a big boost to be in a place like this. It kind of
reminds me of what I'm here for, if I was in danger of forgetting it.
I've been touring from June until mid-December, and have another tour
starting two days after I get back. In that context, it's sort of
easy to lose sight of the real world sometimes. So just from a
personal point of view it's been very beneficial to be here and keep
my feet on the ground. Being face to face with the need of the
homeless people we spent time with yesterday, and being in the
presence of the clear manifestation of earthly power--these are
sobering things. The human spirit, the resourcefulness that people
show...the way people have used these bombed out building to try and
create some semblance of home for themselves is at once impressive
and terribly touching because they're working with so little. Even
there, there's pride. People have gone out of their way to make it as
pleasant as they possibly can and something to give a sense of
privacy. The fact that people are willing to die for these horrible
hovels...what do you make of that? On one hand it's a testimony to
the human spirit, to people's willingness to hang on to their self
respect at all costs. I guess why I brought that up is that issue of
the human spirit is the biggest gift that the Iraqis could ever give
me...to be reminded of our capacity to get by in even the worst of
circumstances. On the personal level that's what I hope to take back.
Of course I hope to have some effect beyond my personal interest and
what I can take back. But whatever else happens I know that much."
Q: As an artist that actively addresses his concerns, do you find it
frustrating that more of your colleagues don't use their craft in a
A: "I can't make choices for anybody else. I think it would be more
useful if there were more people in the arts willing to be heard on
these kinds of issues--but there are a lot of people who are. I mean,
if I start feeling alone, all I have to do is look at Ani DiFranco,
and I know Ani feels alone sometimes, too. We all do. But there's two
of us that are doing this kind of thing on a regular basis. There are
other people who come and go from it on specific issues. Around the
landmine issue, for instance, we did a series of concerts for five
years starting on the anniversary of the treaty banning landmines,
that were the brainchild of Emmylou Harris. There was a sort of
changing cast of characters in these concerts, including songwriters
like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earl, Nancy Griffith,
John Prine, Emmylou, me, Chris Kristofferson--there were a lot of
people. There's Jackson Browne, who's always working on stuff behind
the scenes or publicly, to mention a guy who really spends his time
on things that matter. They're around. So while on the one hand
you've got the artists who are being celebrated on MTV, hustling
products, and up to their neck in cross-marketing, there's a lot of
us that are actually offering something that I consider to be of
greater integrity. But I don't claim to be able to judge the choices
that other people make. It's not for me to say. I don't know what
their background is or where they're coming from; what colored their
experiences to make them make those choices. I think if you're going
to call yourself an artist--and there's a lot of things we can call
ourselves--we can be entertainers or this or that...I grew up in an
era when art was considered to be something that had value that
transcended its commercial value. I feel that way about it and I feel
like what I want to do with my songs is something that isn't about
the commercial value it has...that's my choice."
Mike Ferner spent the month of February, 2003 in Baghdad and Basra,
with Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based campaign to
nonviolently resist economic and military warfare against Iraq. He
returned recently to write about the current situation in Iraq. He is
a former Navy Hospital Corpsman and a member of Veterans for Peace.
He can be reached at: mferner2003 at yahoo.com
-- from an interview by Mike Ferner Progressive Trail.org.
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