For the Birds Radio Program: Iraq Invasion and Dresden

Original Air Date: March 24, 2003

People are asking Laura how birds in Iraq are faring with our invasion, and Saddam Hussein’s destruction of wetlands along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. She’s also thinking of a different war.

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Last week I got several e-mails from people asking me about the white egret-like birds they saw flying about during TV coverage of our invasion of Iraq—one person specifically asked about how birds would fare after the Iraqi soldiers set fire to a huge march. The ecology of the marshes along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is being severely damaged by this war, but Saddam Hussein has been doing perhaps irreparable harm to them all along. His regime has caused grave problems with pollution and drainage, to say nothing of his burning huge swaths of wetlands to persecute the Marsh Arabs who live in the area.

Conservationists have been seriously concerned about two bird species in Iraq: the Iraq Babbler and the Basra Reed Warbler. Both species breed almost exclusively in Iraq, though the warbler winters in Africa and the babbler also ranges into southwestern Iran. In Iraq they are confined to the reedbeds and riverine areas along the lower Tigris and Euphrates where the greatest damage has been taking place. When people ask me how I can be concerned about birds at a time like this, all I can answer is that a world that is safe and beautiful for birds is equally safe and beautiful for human beings.

Somehow the so-called Shock and Awe strategy the US has been using calls to mind the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, which took place from February 13-15, 1945, the time of year when a few birds are just starting to sing. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five ends after the firebombing, as Billy Pilgrim emerges to see the devastation. The book ends with a bird. The final paragraph is:

Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.

Birds were talking.

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”

Laurence Binyon’s poem, The Burning of the Leaves, is about how we humans destroy one another but the only thing that endures is nature.

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock’s fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Spark whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before,
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.