It's my daughter's 21st birthday. I'm slicing red and green peppers in my kitchen for the stir-fry she requested. I'm thinking about what I heard earlier on National Public Radio: every day, the drains clog in the Baghdad morgue, overflowing with blood and tissue.
In the living room, my 18-year-old son does push-ups to cacophonous computerized music. On television, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is coming to a close. “And once again, to our honor roll of American service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the host intones. Photographs of 13 soldiers—some in fatigues, others in dress uniform—appear on the screen, one after another. Their ages: 30, 26, 32, 21, 18 … I stand stricken, swollen with sorrow and anger. And I wonder: Am I ready yet?
Two years ago this month, AJN published “What If Nurses Said No to the War?” (Viewpoint January 2005), the last article I wrote for publication. In that piece I asked of nurses, “If we don't take a stand, who will?” I also wrote that I hoped the American Nurses Association, as a member of the International Council of Nurses (ICN), would take to heart the ICN's Position Statement Armed Conflict: Nursing's Perspective, which “strongly opposes armed conflict under any circumstances” and expresses special concern regarding “the grave consequences for affected civilians, refugees and displaced persons, including severe impairment of health and violation of basic human rights.”
After the first article appeared, nurses e-mailed me from across the country and abroad. They, too, were angry and sorrowful. “What can we do?” they asked. I didn't know what to tell them.
Two years later, American casualties have grown to nearly 3,000, with more than 20,000 wounded. The latest survey of Iraqi civilian mortality, by Burnham and colleagues and published in the October 21, 2006, issue of the Lancet estimates that there have been between 393,000 and 943,000 deaths as a consequence of the war. Nurses, for the most part, have not said no. We have not strongly opposed armed conflict, nor have we expressed special concern over the violation of human rights.
Again this year, as improvised explosive devices blow apart our children and American bullets riddle the bodies of Iraqi youths, nurses find themselves in the “most trusted” profession, according to a Gallup poll. We profess commitment to the alleviation of suffering, and society trusts us to keep our covenant. Are we justified in receiving such faith if we don't oppose this war?
I fear for our collective conscience. We may be tired, overworked, overextended, but with each day that this war drags on and we remain silent, we become more deeply complicit. We already know next week's news. It will begin: “A car bomb exploded in Baghdad today, killing …” Can we bear another year in mute witness to more senseless death?
And so I write again to nurses—not because I have answers but because I trust you with questions that must not be suppressed. Who have we become if we do not speak out against this escalating violence and suffering? Isn't social justice the cornerstone of public health nursing? A gesture of resistance from the most trusted professionals could have powerful reverberations.
For the past 18 months, every Friday afternoon, from 4:30 to 5:30 PM, a small group of us gathers on the median strip of Damen Avenue, between the College of Nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center across the way. We are nurses, physicians, students, veterans, and community members; we hold signs and banners proclaiming “Health Care, Not Warfare.” For one hour every week, we stand together in witness and in opposition to the devastation enacted in our names. It feels right. It is time.
Won't you join us?