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Rebuilding Iraq

Pitt's pitch: not this war, and here's why

A local teacher raises doubts on gathering storm

By Rhonda Stewart, Globe Staff Correspondent, 1/15/2003

t the Harvard Square T station, alongside skateboarders and sidewalk musicians, you can find William Rivers Pitt, handing out hundreds of fliers with bullet points on issues he says are being overlooked by the media.

Pitt plans to keep doing this with friends every few months, even though he's reaching a larger audience now that his first book has stormed the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post lists of best-selling nonfiction paperbacks.

"I don't see it as some exceptional writing talent on my part," he said. "It's activism. It's catching lightning in a bottle."

Pitt, who teaches in Newton, is the author of "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know," which makes a case against unilateral US military action against Iraq.

Whether readers will find it insightful or naive, the 95-page book has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and a deal is being negotiated for an Arabic edition.

"Will's a natural-born essayist. I knew immediately he had all the elements that go into making a great -- and not just a good, but a great -- orator on the page," said Beau Friedlander, Pitt's editor at publisher Context Books. "I think Will Pitt is the next Noam Chomsky [the MIT linguist and antiwar activist]," he said.

"War on Iraq" is an extended interview with former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter that includes historical background on the roots of the current conflict. A week after the book was released, Ritter's publisher told him the company wanted to reissue "Endgame," his 1999 book on how to solve the United States' standoff with the desert nation.

"I'm just amazed by how successful it appears to have become for a short little book," Ritter said. "For some reason, `Endgame' didn't resonate with people, and this little book did. William Rivers Pitt came up with a great concept, and I was happy to be a part of it."

Pitt was in the audience when Ritter gave a talk at Suffolk University in July. He wrote an article about it for a Web site called, to which he contributes frequently. Pitt said it became the most widely read piece he has written.

Ritter, now a vocal critic of war against Iraq, resigned as a UN inspector in 1998, amid controversy. Pitt said he thought Ritter was receptive to talking with him because the long-form interview allowed space to lay out the issues surrounding potential war with Iraq rather than reducing its complexity to sound bites.

Pitt's activism was nurtured by his parents. His father, who worked on Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, was a US attorney in the Clinton administration and is now chairman of Alabama's Democratic Party. His mother is a former deputy mayor of Newton, where 31-year-old Pitt was raised.

"I always trace my personal wake-up call back to Christmas 1986, when Ronald Reagan gave an interview . . . and said my generation would be the first to face the apocalypse," said Pitt, who now lives in Cambridge. "It scared the hell out of me."

Pitt is now in his third year teaching at Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, where his courses include English literature, journalism, grammar, and writing. He loves the job and described it as "an emotional anchor" that keeps him balanced.

A few students have asked for copies of his book to give to their parents, but Pitt said they connect more with the fact that he has written a book than with its subject matter.

At the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Pitt majored in English literature, with a concentration in Eastern religion. In the school's conservative atmosphere he felt a bit like a political movement of one. This fall, he was among an estimated 250,000 people on the National Mall in Washington who rallied against going to war. Despite such displays, Pitt said anti-war sentiment is far stronger in Europe, and Americans need to make their voices heard.

"Our own tradition of protest and dissent in this country has atrophied significantly," he said.

In May, London's Pluto Press will publish Pitt's second book, titled "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence."

The desire to tell the other side of the story gave rise to the three main points Pitt makes in "War on Iraq."

He dismisses claims Saddam Hussein is connected to al Qaeda as laughable due to his contempt for Islamic fundamentalism. He adds that because, until 1998, United Nations inspections were effective in destroying weapons and the capability to produce new ones, Hussein would have had to start from scratch in ways that would be easily detectable.

Pitt also says that war with Iraq would further inflame tensions in the Middle East and almost certainly guarantee more terrorist attacks in the United States.

"It would take a significant number of body bags coming home before the issue gets attention, and by then it's too damn late," he said.

Along with strong sales nationally, the book has done well locally and was on the Harvard Book Store's list of best-selling nonfiction paperbacks.

On the negative side, detractors have tended to attack the credibility of Pitt and Ritter as messengers, calling them traitors and even Communists, rather than argue with their message.

When Pitt spoke to a group of Boston University students recently, a young woman in the audience asked how she, as only one person, could make a difference in the face of such a complex issue.

"There's a lot of personal investment in this and you have to tell people," Pitt said. "Do something. Do anything that might motivate others to action."

This story ran in the City Weekly section of the Boston Globe on 1/15/2003.
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