Athens in Wartime

At the beginning of March, to protest the coming war with Iraq, I resigned as the political counselor of the US embassy in Athens and left Greece. I returned as a private citizen on April 3, forewarned that downtown Athens would be hopelessly snarled with antiwar demonstrators. I took the metro, and passed safely underneath the chaos. An old man in a blue suit, maybe a Greek Civil War veteran on his way home from a Communist Party demonstration, muttered “murderers, fascists” as I dragged my suitcase past him.

I skulked by the “Fuck USA” graffiti (swastikas for the “S”) to the American embassy the next day to collect my mail. Splotches of bright red paint marred the white marble of Walter Gropius’s 1961 embassy building. Members of the staff had cleaned the paint and egg off the huge blue embassy seal on the façade, and were wrapping it in clear plastic. The statue of General George Marshall in the courtyard was already safely mummified, and they were fishing intact paint balloons out of the nearby reflecting pool—eggs blown empty and refilled with paint had proved more reliable projectiles in the end. One paving stone ended up in the ambassador’s bathroom; the remaining forty-odd windows had cracked but held.

There was no doubt about it. Greek public opinion had been mobilized fiercely against the war. Greeks were seeing on television unrelenting images of maimed Iraqi children, weeping Iraqi grandmothers, collapsed apartment blocks, and makeshift coffins, not the sanitized war Americans were watching. The headlines of the leading dailies competed to emphasize US aggression; and local columnists ranged in their comments from cold irritation to frothing, rabid rage. The US advance to Baghdad was for most Greeks a mad dash for oil, with tank treads grinding over the corpses of innocent civilians. A journalist who mildly commented that the US had more efficient ways of silencing the international media than a tank blast at the Palestine Hotel was derided as an American stooge.

The opinion polls showed deep anger at the US, with President Bush seen as the single greatest threat to the peace of the world. My first conversations with Greek acquaintances confirmed not just that 94 percent of Greeks opposed the war, but that most of them could not help hoping the outgunned Iraqis would somehow stop the US tanks and send the Americans home bloodied. No, people said, they didn’t hate all Americans, just President Bush and his advisers; yes, some of them would put a bomb under the US embassy if they could, but not if people were inside. No, they weren’t afraid of us personally, but they were afraid of what we might do elsewhere in the world.

Once shooting starts, logic does not have much to do with human reactions. My Athenian friends acknowledged that Saddam was a vile tyrant, that the US troops did not kill Iraqi babies intentionally, that oil was not the real issue, and that Iraq would ultimately be returned to…

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