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Confessions of 'Baghdad Betty.' (About Those Headlines)

Confessins of 'Baghdad Betty' Dear Mummy,

You wanted to know what on earth happened that made your daughter the subject of the headlines you read in the papers calling her "Baghdad Betty," saying "Superman's Gal Supports Iraq." I really don't know, Mum. In the face of the morbid reality of our times it seems asinine for anyone's exasperation to be directed toward an out-of-context soundbite.

On January 21, when the war was five days old, I attended a press conference organized by the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East in support of elevenAmericans who had placed their sense of morality above their need for comformity or job security. Each one of them articulated what it was in their lives that made them feel compelled to "come out" publicity against the war in the Persian gulf, in spite of the fervid patriotism that is vacuuming up dissent in this country.

Among the group of eleven was Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, a physician and a captain in the Army Reserve Medical Corps who refused orders to participate in what she considers "an immoral, inhumane and unconstitutional act, namely an offensive military mobilization in the Middle East"; Charles Rangel of New York, one of three Congressmen who endorsed the march on Washington; a rabbi; the subdean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; and a fellow whose brother is serving in the gulf.

These were not the voices of naive flakes or ill-informed and unpatriotic Americans, believe me; they were the compassionate and reasoned voices of men and women standing firm on high moral ground and begging to be heard. But the press chose to ignore them; instead, they chosen to focus on me.

We all made our statements, and all of us reiterated that we were supporting the troops by trying to bring them home, preferably alive. This is waht you have to preface any antiwar statements with these days, as if by uttering those words you're going to ease the burden of the people doing the actual fighting. After each of us has spoken, the small press conference was opened for questions. Rangel was smart enough to leave.

There was an antagonistic fellow in the fron row who asked me if the polls stating that 81 percent of Americans supported the war didn't influence me at all. When I answered no, and pointed out to him that the 81 percent seemed to be for the war only if nobody died in it, he changed tactics and challenged my antiwar stance in light of Iraq's refusal to abide by the Geneva conventions in its treatment of allied prisoners, specifically Article 13, which states that it is a violation of the accord to humiliate prisoners of war or parade them in public.

It seemed only logical to surmise that if there is a rule of war saying it is against the Geneva accords to humiliate prisoners or parade them in public, there ought to be a rule of war suggesting that it isn't very nice to bomb little children and blow their arms and legs off. I said as much, and many of the people in the room applauded. Then, after chatting with Yolanda, I went home.

CBS radio has sent a reported to the rpess conference, but in their broadcast they ignored everything about it except some of my words about the children, which they sliced out of context and presented on the air as an intended insult to the prisoners of war. Apparently their switchboard lit up within minutes with hundreds of calls from enraged citizens, who felt I deserved a fate worse than death. One of the callers said he was planning an anti-Margot Kidder rally, the first of its kind that I know of and a most peculiar way to contribute to the war effort.

The next day the New York Post, which is sort of like a daily National Enquirer, wrote a dimwitted and distorted piece about my antiwar stance and promptly sent it out on the wire service, where it was picked up around the world and reprinted as God's own truth. "Superman's Girl Defends Iraqis" screamed the London Daily Mail. The fact that the Post had not sent a reporter to the press conference didn't seem to matter to anyone.

I was home sleeping through most of this. the first clue that something was wrong came the next morning in the form of a phone call from Plan International U.S.A. canceling a taping session the next Monday and politely asking if I was planning to continue speaking out against the war, and if so, would I please understand that the Plan could not afford to have someone so "political" representing them.

Next came calls from a couple of frieds who lovingly suggested that I keep my mouth shut on the ground that inviting the hatred of an entire country was not a good career move. Then more calls and faxes from just about everyone who had my number, many of them much less than friendly, and requests from several TV stations for "exclusive" interviews. finally my gilrfriend Rosie called and read me the article in the Post over the phone. I felt like some infectious germ. My Lord, I'm fucking Lois Lane. Am I that dangerous?

It wasn't until I appeared on Good Day New York that I heard the treasonous soundbite: "It's not all right to humiliate political prisoners, but it is all right to bomb cities, cut off their water supply and kill children. Frankly, give me a break." It was the "give me a break" that did me in. I had barely managed to explain that if we were to insist on Iraq adhering to the Geneva conventions then we should adhere to the article in the Nuremberg "accords or whatever" that says it is wrong to bomb civilian targets or cause undue human suffering, before the host of the show, an ex-marine, moved in for the attack with all the subtlety of a rabid pit bull.

Didn't Saddam Hussein have to be stopped? Shouldn't he be punished for his act of aggression in invading Kuwait? Hadn't we learned anything from World War II? Well, I said, I think it's bit disrespectful to all the Jews who died in World War II to insinuate that we were dealing with a problem of that magnitude (he meant no disrespect, he said; neither had I, I said), but perhaps the one thing we have learned from all wars is that there are no winners and that war's first victims are always the children. The host made it abundantly clear that this was not the answer of a responsible adult.

Minutes later on a Washington call-in show I found myself talking to a wall expalining to the lady in my earphone why I didn't consider it an insult to be called "the Jane Fonda of the nineties." And later still, on the street, a man yelled at me that I'd better study my history, it was the Nuremberg trials I meant. Nuremberg principles, I shot back, but his anger bothered me in spite of my pretense of arrogance.

It is most uncomfortable to stand out in a crowd when the crowd hates you. The self-righteousness of nationalism tolerates little criticism. "You are the first turncoat and we will never forget that," said one of the letters in my mailbox.

I met up with Yolanda that afternoon, and we swapped stories that reflected our growing paranoia. She'd done the Sally Jessy Raphael show the day before, and when she'd brought up the fact that it was the United States that had sold most of Saddam's chemical and biological weapons to him, Sally Jessy went berserk and started screaming, "Get out of here! Give me that microphone and get off my stage! This is MY show, get out of here!" Later we both checked into the Parker Meridien hotel under assumed names, she because she was a fugitive from justice and I because I wished I was someone else.

When Yolanda and I appeared on CBS's This Morning the next day I was too cowardly to invite any more anger so I focused only on the children who are going to be the victims of this war, thinking that no one could attack a person for speaking out on behalf of civilians and children. I was wrong. the night before I'd received a fax from Doug Hostetter of Fellowship of Reconsiliation, who'd received a fax stating that a certain retired General Opel, a member of the German Parliament, estimated there were up to 300,000 casualties in Iraq and Kuwait, more than 100,000 in Baghdad alone, and that his figures were based on information he'd received from someone in the US. military. I had Yolanda read it on the air because she had more credibility than I, she being a doctor and I an actress. But the number of vituperative calls that CBS received as a result of our appearance together was staggering. What we didn't know was that CBS had written "AWOL" in large letters under Yolanda's head the whole time she was talking.

The thing that confounded me, Mum, was that for a while two things weighed on me alternately but equally, two things that were not equal: the deep-flet grieving for a world gone mad with slaughter, and the irritating, twittering yearning for approbation, for superficial pats on the head like the kind you got from a teacher in grade school saying, "You are a good girl, you are a good girl." What does it matter, the human need for validation in the face of all this dying? Does it all boil down to a desire to conform, to be seen as correct in our public response to war? And why, for God's sake, does the press feel the need to be an accompliance in this plot to make it appear as if every sane person in the land is lined up behind the President in support of the war?

It was great to get the news that all the Canadian Kidders marched for peace on the 26th along with hundreds of thousands of other people around the world. Do you think anyone heard us? Moose [Mike McAdam] had said we could stay at his house on the weekend of the march in Washington. Yolanda and I drove down. We got to Moose's at 3 in the morning. He knew all about my ignominy and said, "You're dead meat, Kidder." But he marched with us anyway.

The march began at around 1 P.M. and people were still walking up Pennsylvania Avenue at 4:30. That's how impressive the turnout was. The veterans were first, which is how it should be, and there were thousands and thousands of them. then came the Military Families Support Network, and then the women I was marching with: the mothers, holding up the Madre banner. I held up the end that had a mother nestling her baby, figuring that was about as safe as you could get. Yolanda had found the one other doctor there who was refusing to serve on moral grounds.

That night I read the World Was I poems of Wilfred Owen, and I thought of Granddaddy wondering for the rest of his life why he'd had to lose his youth for nothing in the trenches of Verdun, and of Daddy, bottling the horrors he'd seen in World War II way down deep behind his charm, out of sight of all os us, fighting to keep his nightmares hidden from the age of 22 onward, keeping his harrowing secret right up to the end of his life.

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Was it as sad as this in World War II, Mummy? Write soon. I love you, Margie
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Author:Kidder, Margot
Publication:The Nation
Date:Mar 4, 1991
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