Sunday’s New York Times offers a poignant look at some of the victims of the Iraq War:
IT was a bitterly cold night in the Baghdad winter of 2005, somewhere in the predawn hours before the staccato of suicide bombs and mortars and gunfire that are the daily orchestration of the war. Alone in my office in The Times’s compound beside the Tigris River, I was awaiting the telephoned “goodnight” from The Times foreign desk, eight time zones west, signaling that my work for the next day’s paper was done.
That is when I heard it: the cry of an abandoned kitten, somewhere out in the darkness, calling for its mother somewhere inside the compound. By an animal lover’s anthropomorphic logic, those desperate calls, three nights running, had come to seem more than the appeal of a tiny creature doomed to a cold and lonely death. Deep in the winter night, they seemed like a dismal tocsin for all who suffer in a time of war.
Perhaps it reflects badly on me, but I find a story like this more moving than the familiar stories of human suffering that populate the front pages of newspapers these days. Perhaps it is because in cats we are talking about creatures with just enough brain power to understand that they are cold, and hungry, and scared, but not enough brain power to think about the morality of war, or the niceties of international politics. Perhaps it is because in talking of the anguished meows of a frightened kitten we are talking about suffering in its purest form. Just an adorable and harmless creature that is the physical embodiment of innocence. Somehow human suffering always seems to come with strains of moral ambiguity. But causing a sweet, mostly undemanding little cat to suffer is just intolerable cruelty.
As The Times’s bureau chief, part of my routine was to ask, each night, how many cats we had seated for dinner. In a place where we could do little else to relieve the war’s miseries, the tally became a measure of one small thing we could do to favor life over death. The American military command has a battery of “metrics” to gauge progress, and the nightly headcount of the cats became my personal measure, my mood varying as the numbers went up and down. Sometimes they went sharply down, during winter epidemics of cat flu, or after attacks by the compound’s two dogs (war refugees themselves) that proved, as they grew beyond puppies, to have a feral antipathy to cats programmed in their bones.
The article’s conclusion is also moving. The writer describes leaving Baghdad with several abadnoned cats he was bringing back with him to England:
All about was hubbub, with hundreds of angry, fearful Iraqis struggling to secure their own passage out. The cats seemed terrified, so I fell once more into my anthropomorphic mode, offering them a quiet discourse on what lay ahead — the 3,000-mile air journey, detention in the quarantine center and, ultimately, liberation into a green and pleasant land where they would be full citizens, never again wanting for shelter, warmth and food.
A small crowd of Iraqis had gathered, and one among them, a middle-aged man who introduced himself as a physician traveling to Jordan to see his ailing mother, knelt down beside me and asked, in halting English, if I’d mind a question. By all means, I said. “Well then,” he said, his face breaking into a sad smile, “what I want to ask is this: This proposal you make, is it for four legs only, or also for two? Six months’ detention, British passport, free to stay, guaranteed home, this is excellent. I will take, and many other Iraqis, too.”
I recommend the whole article, even though it might just ruin your day.