Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Killing" the myth

Sometimes I regret my stubborn refusal to connect my television to the cable outlet. I worried Ken Burns’ 7-part documentary “The War” would stir a patriotic nostalgia for the last "good war". As an antiwar activist I felt I was shirking a responsibility to analyze and debate the effects it may have on the public’s mood about George Bush’s war in Iraq.

In August I read a Cape Cod Times column by Sean Gonsalves that seemed to express a similar anxiety: “One soldier's story I hope is represented in Burns' project is the kind offered by WWII vet Edward W. Wood Jr. in a book titled Worshipping the Myths of World War II: Reflections on America's Dedication to War.

I finally found the book during a visit to the lower 48. A few weeks past before I found the time to begin reading it, but it only took Part 1 – The First Myth – “The Good War” to understand why it impressed Gonsalves so much.

At least to this point, Wood doesn’t deliver a litany of facts as an intellectual challenge to the myth. Instead, he took me on a journey to his philosophical conviction intensely grounded in his brief combat experience and the severe wounds he suffered.

He doesn’t pretend to have been engaged in an objective study of his subject. But it’s not a case of selective research either, of fixing the facts to fit the argument. Rather, he gives the impression that he’s being led by his soul’s intuitive sense of purpose, as if his entire life was supposed to be dedicated to revealing to us all what war really means. “It is time, I think, to deal with what the word “killing” really means in combat”, he tells me.

It is this word that does the work for him. It appears so often in the text, in so many variant forms yet always revealing the same repulsive ugliness that it seeps into the core of my being. His mission is clear. He’s not intending to be savvy and tactful at all.

Once in his grip, my thoughts were transformed. I was no longer the curious reader in search of evidence to add to the layers already accumulated that support my anti-war position. I became fixated on killing just as he intended. The word war itself lost its abstract identity as an armed conflict between states. Death’s whisper gave into the loud blast of gunfire and explosions leaving the landscape in my mind a virtual killing field littered with bodies, in some cases, “blown into small parts by artillery fire”.

I don’t ever want to know firsthand “what the word “killing” really means in combat”, but Wood made me feel like I’ve tried to cheat by imagining I was intelligent and passionate in my antiwar views. I realized it’s his time to talk about killing with a force that goes beyond merely disturbing, and it was my time to listen whether I liked it or not.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Torturous silence toward collateral damage

The news is once again abuzz with the Bush administration’s inhumane treatment of detainees. The interrogation techniques that amount to torture were apparently approved in secretly prepared legal opinions almost three years ago. Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress and some of the mainstream news media are in an uproar. But is it the practice or secrecy that has most of them upset, or the damage to the country’s reputation?

While there is no excuse for torturing any POW or so-called enemy combatant, it seems that the controversy is really a puff of moral blindness. While America in all likelihood continues to detain and mistreat many Iraqis and men of Muslim faith on suspicion alone, no one in Congress ever cries out in horror when US airstrikes reportedly kill civilians.

Last weekend, the LA Times published a story under the headline ““3 U.S. troops killed in Iraq bombings””. While the report immediately describes how that they were killed by roadside bombs, the report provides more information on the disputed effect of a US airstrike on the village of Jizan Imam. The US military claims it killed 25 militiamen, while some local Iraqi officials say most of the dead were innocent civilians.

The first thing apparent in the article is that the death of US soldiers is the issue of primary concern to the American public. That focus serves as the justification for the air strikes that followed. It’s as if to say that military retaliation, executed with a disproportionate use of force, is entirely appropriate when we lose a few of our own.

Then it typical fashion it dismisses the disagreement by stating that it’s “common for U.S. and Iraqi officials to have conflicting accounts of military raids. U.S. military officials say they fire only on known or suspected threats, but Iraqis say the Americans often strafe buildings occupied by civilians, causing casualties.”

There is no call for an investigation and rarely has there been. US reporters take their cue from the military spokespeople while safely nestled in the green zone. Unquestioned trust by Congress is awarded to the military commanders. The Iraqi officials are summarily dismissed like they are mere op/ed writers with a differing viewpoint.

What does this have to do with torture? It seems that Congress believes legislation intended to prohibit "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment only applies to individuals detained during or in relation to armed conflict. Meanwhile, the relatively routine killing of innocent civilians by “accident” isn’t cruel or inhuman, nor degrading to the survivors of our attacks whose lives, in a bizarre irony, might be imagined as accidentally being spared.

In this light, the outcry over the administration’s policies permitting torture of some detainees is absurd. Accepting the military command’s report that only armed fighters were killed is the same as allowing Bush to have the final word when he says “This government does not torture people.”

The Democrats have no right to seek any moral high ground on torture. The far more serious war crime is hidden under the benign label of “collateral damage” that Congress and the news media refuses to discuss.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Truth in the Valley of Elah

Tears met my eyes in the seconds before it happened. The boy in the street closed the story. The impact explains the soldier’s horror and the final call for help by father and son is understood. America is in trouble.

There are other conclusions available to the film In the Valley of Elah. Blame can be cast at the father’s rigidity. The disturbing acts could be portrayed as bad apples. These and other scenarios are likely to be found by the casual movie goer who seeks nothing more than dramatic entertainment, the escape route to measuring a convenient distance from the war.

The typical Hollywood murder mystery begins when a missing person turns up dead. The whodunit sequence becomes a competitive game where the expertise of a retired cop shines lights on clues missed by the rookie detective. The evidence traces the events backwards until the one overlooked piece stumbles off the rookie’s desk. Youthful determination is rewarded by learning to respect the wisdom of age.

What’s missing though is humor. There isn’t a single scene where the relationship between the characters restores the light hearted diversion to the comic side of life. It’s all serious and thoroughly filled with deeply probing symbolism that challenges every viewer to investigate the more complex heart in the myth of David and Goliath.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) leaves his Tennessee home immediately after learning that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), is AWOL from an Army base shortly after returning from Iraq. A veteran himself, Deerfield is revealed to be solidly in the embrace of duty when he stops in route to help a hapless immigrant right the American flag and keep it from touching the ground. American patriotism, positioned to feed the flow of the narrative, leads onto the military base where Deerfield finds unquestioned respect from members of Mike’s unit.

For Deerfield, a former military police officer and investigator, it’s all too natural to seek help from the “good ol’ boy” network. It’s a man’s world, which is why the mother (Susan Sarandon) is left behind. It’s reinforced when Mike’s combat buddies lead Deerfield beyond the base to a strip joint filled with crudely demeaning scenes of women. And it gains strength in a seemingly pathetic efforts by Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who he meets at the local police station.

Sanders is clearly the outsider as her peers get cheap laughs from her exchanges with a soldier’s wife over a complaint of animal cruelty by her soldier husband. The woman wants help that she claims the military won’t provide. She angrily disbelieves Sanders’ expression of concern that’s excused by the jurisdictional separation between the military and civilian world. After Sanders applies the same kind of dismissal to Deerfield, he cries out against the injustice. The civilian police are failing to honor those who have answered the call to serve our country and are most deserving of their attention.

When the police are called to the scene where body parts are discovered, Sanders is once more alone. She does her work carrying the softer role which allows us all to be repulsed by the evidence she examines. Then she seems perturbed by the arrival of the military police who take over the case because the spot of the crime is on base property. She's further insulted by the inferred investigative inferiority. And she seems to be the only detective interested in the truth. The men who she wants respect from all take refuge in the chance to avoid the work.

Deerfield learns that the body is Mike’s when a soldier delivers the news in a fashion similar to the classical messenger of death of a soldier in battle. After viewing the remains, the military holds onto the high road of righteous certainty when Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric), the MP leading the investigation, suggests that Mike was a victim of a local gang because he was either using or selling drugs.

Deerfield’s trust and allegiance to soldiers who served as he did reads loud and clear, once more placing Sanders on the defensive. But his father’s pride is shattered by Mike’s possible fall into the world of drugs. The only respectful avenue to pursue is the harsh truth.

Sanders is stuck between the traditional world of men on both sides. Her quest for respect comes via compassion as she takes Deerfield to the scene in violation of department policy and common investigative practice. But even here she’s reduced to the unqualified detective as Deerfield adds to the military superiority by describing numerous clues missed by the plain clothes civilian forces.

Fighting the powerful male lead begins when Sanders resistance softens to become trust for Deerfield’s experience. As reluctant partners brought together by each other’s isolation, she invites him home for dinner with her young son David. It’s here that the movie’s namesake is revealed. Deerfield fails to read to the boy in bed and instead tells him the story of David and Goliath. Courage and faith allows good to beat evil, he tells him, leaving young David with a desire to be unafraid of the dark.

The truth is gradually discovered amid a mixture of Sanders' determination and Deerfield’s peek into Mike’s life in Iraq seen through ragged digital movie clips captured by cell phone. The male and military worlds crumble under the real meaning of “good ol’ boys" – corruption. The horror of war is revealed in the personal trauma which works against the myths of heroism, bravery and dedication to country during war.

It’s a bold attempt by director Paul Haggis to lead all Americans to imagine themselves as the armored warriors fearing Goliath in the biblical Valley of Elah. The film risks keeping audiences away by forcing Americans to travel deeper than where the eyes and logic easily lead. The challenge to the viewer is to see the evidence meticulously laid out in the symbolism. It's all there, just as vital evidence is available but easily missed by the lazy detectives of the local police force, and conveniently avoided by their military counterparts.

PTSD is not mentioned but hinted at in father and son when Deerfield is awakened from sleep hearing his Mike’s desperate phone call from Iraq. It’s front and center when the realization that animal cruelty is another soldier’s sign of deeper trouble. The blank intensity of Corporal Penning’s eyes and unremorseful conclusion sears a brand of its horrific potential.

When Private Ortiz tells Deerfield he wants to go back, patriotism evaporates into lonely confusion. He can’t cope in a world void of meaning, and it’s our world, not the war, where the chasm is deepest.

Like young David, we're afraid of the darkness. The bright lights of distractions is the armor allowing us to hide from Goliath, the big lie, in Iraq and at home. We must see David’s faith more symbolically. As Chris Hedges tell us in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, “reconciliation, self-awareness, and finally the humility that makes peace possible come only when the culture no longer serves a cause or a myth but the most precious and elusive of all human narratives–truth.”

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The myth of winning hearts and minds

Last week, in a Boston Globe op/ed, Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state, wrote that the battle for Afghan "hearts and minds" is in danger of being lost because of rising civilian casualties and war damage.” The key to winning the people’s support he claims “is reconstruction and development (jobs, roads, water, and electricity), rather than military power alone.”

Inderfurth based much of his analysis on a British report published last month. As if the British army itself was directly reinforcing his case, the day after his op/ed appeared NY Times reporter Carlotta Gall claimed that a unnamed senior British commander in Afghanistan “had asked that American Special Forces leave his area of operations because the high level of civilian casualties they had caused was making it difficult to win over local people.”

Another of their commanders, Maj. Dominic Biddick, “has a $5,000 good-will fund and hands out cash to victims he comes across” and “has $10,000 a month to spend on community assistance programs.” He told Gall “If you are genuinely caring, you can win friends.”

Obviously the US and British military are in a struggle is to keep the civilian in population Afghanistan (and Iraq) from becoming supportive of those who have chosen to resist the occupation. It is in this light that “winning the hearts and minds” has become the oft stated military strategy focused on humane goals.

A lot has been written about the mistakes made early in the Iraq war as US forces failed to consider this as primary strategy for winning the peace there. The opportune time was supposed to have been soon after Saddam’s regime had collapsed and our troops took control of Baghdad. But in Afghanistan we had much more time before the “insurgency” there gained any strength, so what went wrong? Perhaps it’s not the delay of tactics, but that the tactical is not compatible with the heart.

Inderfurth’s notion of building friendships is drastically different than the British officers. He is not on the ground, and the abstract idea is based on visions from his life history, of which there is no military experience to speak from. This is not to belittle his credentials in international relations. Intellectually are seeds of genuine concern, but they're not rooted in any real bonds fostered between human hearts.

The first evidence of something more amiss though comes from the suggestion that military power has any role at all in building friendship among people in another country. This drift reveals a statesman overly sensitized to his own persona, one where speaking truth is secondary to supporting government policy, which all too often has hidden agendas.

Turning to the British for advice might seem sensible, especially in the context of addressing civilian casualties. But even here the building of bonds between human beings is immediately compromised by his use of the word “minimize”, quietly qualifying the common rhetoric of “collateral damage” as a necessary fact that some “hearts and minds” don’t matter.

The British officers in Afghanistan are intimately closer to the trauma felt by Afghan survivors. The empathy they feel may well have origins in their own heart. The question remains as to how close are they to touching the soul of these innocent victims. What does a commander like Biddick do after he hands out the cash?

The military role of policing the neighborhood is not remotely similar to victim advocates who spend hours and days counseling the unfortunate. Neither country is winning friends. Instead our troops will leave behind a nation of PTSD victims who have far less resources to cope with the long term emotional trauma than the inadequate programs available to our returning vets.

Withdrawing from the scene as the troops eventually will we find ourselves back to Inderfurth and eventually at the policy makers in Washington DC. Here in our own country we often complain that politicians are out of touch with the common working American. This gulf must swell wider when reaching across the seas to a Muslim land accustomed to a socialist economy.

Inderfurth’s intellectual conviction exemplifies a hubris similar to the White House’s certainty that our military might is invincible. Both are germs carried in the wind of a collective ego of American exceptionalism.

The best relations are founded in trust and respect, which begin with genuine listening. In Afghanistan and Iraq, as long as our airstrikes, big guns and house to house raids continue, it ought to be clear that our forces cannot hear the hopes and dreams of a people whose culture we don’t honestly understand. Their voices are downing under the flood of deceit, delivered as orders from politicians in far away places.

Severing the word “winning” from “hearts and minds” is essential to seeing through the rhetoric. Conquest shows no affection to friendship.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The war in Iraq didn't bring the bridge down in Minneapolis

First of all, the Minneapolis bridge collapse represents a true tragedy for those who lost loved ones or were seriously injured. For them, the story that immediately became national news is personal. It will always be.

Make no mistake, the nation’s tax dollars would be much more meaningfully spent maintaining our highways and bridges than the way Bush and Congress have squandered billions in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are dozens of other programs that would greatly benefit if indeed the money was still to be spent somewhere when Bush stops chasing failure further down his rabbit hole in Iraq.

Yet I have to argue that it is a serious misrepresentation to even suggest the collapse is the fault of the Bush administration.

The day after the collapse, John Nichols wrote in The Nation “an obsessive focus on warmaking abroad leaves a trail of death, destruction and decay in the U.S.” In a piece written for the progressive website, attorney and peace activist Tom Turnipseed chimes in: “Unsafe highways, bridges and driving are a genuine terror threat to us all.

There are criticisms about the nation’s priorities and tax structure within both stories that are certainly valid. That’s where the hype needs to end.

The quote by Turnipseed that referenced The Center for Strategic and International Studies first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Comparing the portion of federal, state and local spending from the 1960s is very misleading. The fact is that the federal aid portion for bridge replacements and major rehabilitation is 80% for bridges that qualify according to their condition rating.

It’s that label “structurally deficient” which comes from the condition rating that has been mostly seriously misunderstood since the bridge collapse. The numbers of structurally deficient bridges across the country have been all over the news because the Minneapolis bridge carried that label for many years.

As a former bridge inspector who also spent one year assessing all of Washington State’s highest priority bridge needs, I can attest to two facts. The term structurally deficient has little to do with the actual urgency of any bridge replacement or repair. Any bridge deemed unsafe for use after an inspection would either be closed immediately or emergency repairs would be ordered. The term is merely a generalization, and in more than a few instances, highway departments stretch the definitions to get federal funds when the driving force behind a bridge replacement has nothing to do with the structural condition.

And the ability of even the most qualified inspectors will never be enough to prevent some tragic collapses from happening. In a program that defines inspection frequency in terms of one or two years, it is nearly impossible for an inspector to be on site at the right time to discover the kind of serious flaws that might progress to such points. A degree of negligence may on rare occasions play a role, but more often than not the mistakes are innocent. They are mistakes because that which we can't know is relegated to the best judgment available, which is experienced based on the thousands of other situations that weren't mistakes.

The 1983 collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Connecticut is one example of a failure that led to new and more rigid inspection requirements. That steel bridge also lacked redundancy. A corrosion induced crack of a steel pin connection that could not be accessed for a complete visual inspection caused the failure. Yet even with new ultrasonic testing equipment and methods there is no guarantee that such serious flaws will be detected.

The Schoharie Creek Bridge collapse four years later on the New York Throughway delivered the transportation community new lessons on bridge scour. More improvements were made to the national bridge inspection program. But it remains incredibly complex and difficult to examine the scour under a bridge pier when it is most critical, which happens to be during the worst periods of flooding.

Part of the point here is that older bridges aren’t any different than any engineered product, be it automobiles, airplanes, buildings, or pipelines. In our nation’s rush to build a world of mass convenience to facilitate our habits of mass consumption, there is a blindness to tomorrow that is related to using materials and design theories that are the best available at the time. No one can possibly gauge the magnitude of the future problems we create when the rush to build more and bigger, wider highways is always ahead of us.

Despite the American Society of Civil Engineers' report card that rates bridges a “C” (higher than all but one of the 15 categories), one must remember that every profession has its lobby. Engineers imagine a perfect world today from the present technological point of view. More, bigger and wider is work to an engineer, and that is especially handy for extracting their piece of the taxpayer pie to support their same mass consumption habit that none of us can afford to ignore.

In an ideal world, Nichols new slogan “No More Collapses” is an admirable goal. But our cultural vision of the ideal world would ask that we all escape premature death by being protected from every conceivable kind of accident, crime, disease and even natural disaster.

Which brings me to my second point. Sometimes planes crash, buildings burn, and bridges fall. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California magnify the reality that often yesterday’s public works projects were prematurely declared successes. Time is the only true arbiter and judge for many of our engineering accomplishments.

If we look at all the evidence before we judge the present situation as a negligent failure that reveals an imposing threat to our way of life, what we’ll find is that the initial reaction needs to be tempered with caution and an overall societal responsibility. Ranting about “the war against the transportation terror in our own back yard terror” reeks of political opportunism. It is a mistaken departure from seeking the truth.

We can’t ask and shouldn’t expect the government to protect us from all possibility of death in the air, on highways, or in buildings. If we as antiwar activists honestly believe that Bush sowed the seeds of fear to sell his war and turn the country into a police state, then we mustn’t stoop to his level of abusing the truth by trying to mobilize new fears so that we can blame the administration for this tragedy. We have to be truthful first and foremost or we become like them.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

One new voice

I was at the Juneau Chapter of Veterans for Peace monthly breakfast meeting last Saturday. There were two new faces among the small group of regulars. Ed introduced the man sitting next to him as David, his brother-in-law from Southern California. I was more curious about the other newcomer sitting at the other the end of the table. He looked vaguely familiar. When I overhead him say he had been in Iraq, I realized from where I remembered him.

A year ago the Juneau People for Peace and Justice sponsored a town meeting about the Iraq war with Senator Lisa Murkowski. About 38 people got up and delivered a two minute statement to her, and all but one person had spoken with passionate opposition to it. His name was David Summers and he was the man across the table.

Summers spoke confidently that evening “No soldier, including myself, wants to be at war. I'm not here to be an advocate of war in any way, shape of form. However, I stand ready with my other fellow soldiers, I trust you to make good decisions, and I support the mission to continue the effort to free the peaceful people of Iraq.”

Summers left the Saturday morning meeting early, after having participated in the discussion. He spoke clearly without hesitation, carrying the same confidence I recalled from a year ago while referring to himself as a recent convert.

Of course, he is not alone as a soldier who has been to Iraq and opposes the war. Last August, Steve Lewis returned with a small contingent of the Alaska National Guard and told the crowd welcoming them that "I still believe that there's big questions that need to be answered about the war and what got us there." Beyond our small community over 2000 active duty soldiers have signed The Appeal for Redress urging their Congressional Representatives to end the U.S. military occupation. And membership in The Iraq Veterans Against the War is growing.

So is there much to get excited about because one new dissenting figure in Juneau just appeared? Will he be back and become an active voice of opposition to the war and occupation? If so, will more people pay attention and be encouraged to act?

It’s difficult to say why I was so moved by this rather small moment. Summers earned my respect last May even though I absolutely disagreed with his trust for our government and his view that the war was about freedom for the Iraqi people. He was alone within the Juneau antiwar crowd, the only one with courage to make a statement that supported the mission in Iraq. He certainly has my respect now.

Perhaps it’s nothing more than seeing proof that people’s view can change and that some have the courage to publicly acknowledge it. There is always more power to what we witness compared to the stories others tell us. What we see and hear firsthand becomes bonded to our truths. Maybe I'm feeling hope standing firmly behind its own conviction that truth is on our side.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

War and the pursuit of happiness

“It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism”. These words recall the mood of most Americans as we bombed Afghanistan in 2001 and during the shock and awe invasion of Iraq 16 months later. Patriotism at its highest also chastised those opposed to the wars as saboteurs of freedom who should quickly shrink out of sight “and offend no more”.

But the author wasn’t alive to witness America’s latest misadventure into the imperial aspirations of our government that purports to desire freedom and liberty for all nations. The quotes are from The War Prayer by Mark Twain, and were written a little more than a century ago.

Last week, President Bush suggested that the US occupation in Iraq may follow the model of US presence in South Korea. Maybe he should have been going further back into history to the Philippine-American War. Our original ambition there had imperial objectives. American troops fought an “insurgency” for 10 years after the President declared the war was over. And Americans then were as blindly patriotic as many remain today.

Mark Twain was an outspoken critic of that war. The War Prayer though is focused on the public sentiment about going to war, not on the American leadership. Writing after the war, he was looking back at the fever fed by simplistic ideals of patriotism, a naïvely perceived just cause and the expectation of quick and easy victory. The setting in church deliberately ordains the mission as serving God which excuses the public from looking deep enough for the entire truth. The ridicule pointedly reminds us how easily public opinion is swayed by those in power and a cooperative press.

One hundred years later America was sold a war by a popular President, aided by a news media eager to sell the story of a heroes returning home from their just conquest of the evil enemy. People who opposed it as a war for oil and imperial ambitions were demonized just as his story portrays. Even now public opposition to the war and occupation is derided as surrendering the divine destiny of an American victory.

War divides a population like no other issue, but why do the people of a nation built on individual freedom despise the freedom to dissent as we prepare to send our soldiers into war?

Much of our American heritage begins with the unalienable rights proffered in our Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Notice here that pursuit is a word without the emphasis of a proper name. It’s a word that implies something beyond the horizon, to be reached for rather than taken for granted. Happiness isn’t a right in and of itself.

Pursuit also implies work. Our individual freedoms are indeed a blessing, but nothing is free. Sacrifice is part of the equation. The stranger of Mark Twain’s War Prayer reminds us that what we seek always asks for more than we are aware of, that we must “pause and think” about the full meaning of what we want. “Ponder this -- keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time.”

Certainly we understand that freedom shouldn’t be gained at the expense of others. Yet his message really refers to another false freedom that may be the most important insight he offers. It is delivered not only by his words, but by his publisher’s rejection of the writing and his family’s concern about public reaction that delayed publication of The War Prayer until after his death. Even as we imagine our battle to end this war may be with Congress, the real work remains as it did 100 years ago, with the extrapolated right of Americans not to look hard into the inconvenient truths of our lifestyle and national actions. The dark shadow of our individual freedom lies in the desire not to have our conscience disturbed by anything that interferes with the pursuit of happiness.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Who should write the history of this war?

While Congress and the President feud over the responsibility for managing the war in Iraq, the debate about civilian casualties in Afghanistan reveals the immorality on both fronts. Denial begins with the misnomer “insurgents”, which wrongly grants the U.S. a lasting military purpose and presence. It becomes an easy route of escape from accountability for mistakes, which fosters carelessness and leads to cover-ups. It aids much of the populace to avoid questioning the mission.

It also greatly contributes to the unacceptable attitude of far too many U.S. soldiers toward the civilian population. In the recently released Army Mental Health Advisory Team survey, only 47 percent of them said non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect. John Pike of the think tank Global Security reminds us that “anybody who is surprised by [this] doesn't understand war.”

Why don’t we as a nation understand war? Certainly the vast majority of Americans aren’t affected on a personal level. But it’s also that the history of war that we learn later is also a misnomer. It’s not told by the people who lived through its tragedy but by the politicians who desire to immortalize our past actions for the sake of national pride without the balance of humility.

Two weeks ago in a collaborative essay titled Moving Beyond Anti-War Politics, Phyllis Bennis and Robert Jensen wrote “demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is only the first of our obligations to help create the conditions for real justice and peace in the Middle East and around the world.” Then they asked “what comes after a U.S. withdrawal?”

We need to rebuild Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s infrastructure we’ve destroyed. There is an immense cleanup of depleted uranium and probably unexploded cluster bombs on both landscapes. And we need to make honest and meaningful reparations to the survivors of the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives abruptly ended by a combination of mistakes and gross negligence that begins with the criminal justification called collateral damage.

The word criminal isn’t lightly placed here. Shouldn’t the word murder especially apply to the killing of civilians during a war that America entered without provocation? From its “shock and awe” beginnings, the lives of common Iraqis were deemed expendable so long as the goal to reduce the loss of US troops was in play.

The civilian causality count and tomorrow’s question merge to become more than the responsibility to atone for the stunningly unjustified unleashing of America’s military might. We need to do more than heal the present for the sake of our immediate future. There needs to be a movement that will carry the lessons learned from this debacle into future generations so that we can create a world that Bennis and Jensen envision:

“Imagine what would be possible if we — ordinary citizens of this latest empire — could build a movement that gave politicians no choice but to do the right thing.

Imagine what would be possible in the world if an anti-empire movement were strong enough to make it clear that ending military violence requires a just distribution of the resources of this world.

Imagine what is possible if we work to make inevitable one day what seems improbable today — the justice that makes possible real peace.”

How do we get there? Doesn’t at least part of this path include educating the generations that will follow us? Can we even consider doing that when we’re not educating today’s students about the true effects of war? Should discussing Iraq be on or off the classroom syllabus? At what age are our children ready to hear about the war’s horror?

The wars I learned about in school were taught in the fashion of politics. They were all about nations and their leaders, politicians with proud legacies, or demons who ruled with an iron fist. We read about brief accounts of intelligent generals with courage and compassion like Omar Bradley, or compassionless but brilliant strategists like George Patton.

While the war in Vietnam raged, my high school classes focused on the past, on the “good wars”, except for the occasional venture into current events which amounted to little more than reading a newspaper article of our choice. Was I alone? Or did the Vietnam experience that includes its unpopular tag mean that it was generally avoided? What were the lessons for those after me, after the war was precisely deemed a huge mistake?

Wars may originate among political needs or ambitions. Politicians do determine the primary goals. Generals and admirals, often the politicians within the military, strategize the individual battle plans aimed at accomplishing the nation’s objective. But wars are fought by soldiers. They may feel called to serve a nation, but on the front most report that war shrinks back to the most basic human instinct of individual survival and protection of one’s buddies.

War is political among the citizenry at home only when we’re not touched deeply by its horror, or personally by a relationship to a soldier or victim. This idea also registers with all of a nation’s history relative to personal experiences. People easily forget the details of the larger view, but our story or the ones told by those we’re close to dig roots into our soul that affect our thinking for years to come.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States begins the movement away from the history preferred by politicians with all the heroes they want us to look up to. He attempts to balance our heritage with obscure stories of people leading movements for justice closer to the common people in America. But here we are still learning from the second hand telling about distant events with impersonal names attached.

For me, Zinn’s own personal story holds the attention of my memory differently. He served during World War II on a crew that flew bombing missions over Germany. But it wasn’t until after it ended that Zinn’s worldview of war was profoundly changed. John Hersey’s book Hiroshima connected him to the horror that he inflicted but didn’t witness thousands of feet below where the bombs he dropped reached their targets. Why did those stories affect him to the extent he sought to reexamine his own history? Why does he still so vividly connect with the life changing moment 60 years later? Isn’t the answer in the question itself? Wouldn’t we all remember a moment of profound epiphany?

History changes when its data-like stage of who, what, where and when is disturbed by the question why. No longer do we think we know the story and commit it to the lesser place of our memory where we might interpret only the surface of its meaning. It lives differently each time we recall it as we wander behind the scenes to debate many possible meanings. The deeper the question tugs at our conscience, the more likely it will remain a figure in our future thinking.

History evolves further when the main characters aren’t celebrities. When the story leaves us wondering beyond tidbit answers to anecdotal people and events, the more the soul is touched and the deeper it will root in our memory. The closer to the individual we get, the more unique our view of human history becomes.

If war changes people, it obviously changes those closest to the battlefield, their families and friends, not the politicians we listen to and the pundits we read. This is the history we might do well to learn so as not to become a people with an amnesiac like memory of the tragedy of war.

We, the “ordinary citizens of this latest empire” are the people needed to write this history. The generations following us need to hear it. And in alliance with the need to end this war, Now is the time to begin. Now is when the stories might have their greatest impact, at the time history is being lived before re-imagined into the written record. Now is when there is energy in opposition to the war available which means a wider listening audience. Now there may be a greater compassion to listen which might hold itself among our future moral sensibilities.

This is especially true for a war that is lost, because politicians will want these stories to be lost once they finally admit it. And they will never want war to be the human demon that it is because it will affect the defense industry which drives not just the economy, but the false notion that military might is a rightful and safe supremacy.

A strong America isn’t about our weapons that the world won’t challenge. It’s about our character and the willingness to explore the painful truths about what war is, especially the wars that didn’t have to happen. It’s time to change who writes our history for the generations that follow.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

letters to the impossible

When do we give up on Congress? Doesn’t it seem so apparent that the reason there is such a lack of substance to their debate about the war begins with protection of the party apparatus? It seems we’re dealing with the machine first and our individual representatives second.

In Alaska we have two Republican senators and an at large Republican congressman. Who, if any, are the best to write to? But to qualify the question with “if any” is giving into a form of apathy, the beginning of the slow demise beyond even the cynic’s honest wish to be an agent of change.

The cynic is very much a part of my thinking process though, and thus it’s easy to dismiss Rep. Don Young. I would probably be among those criminally supportive of members in Congress who "are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged” for willfully taking action during wartime that damaged morale and undermined the military

A few weeks ago in the Anchorage airport I watched him strut by wearing a blue shirt with his name stitched below the right shoulder. Was that the decrepit fear of a man who can’t function without his ego? Investing energy debating someone who hasn’t responded to one single letter is matching waste with waste, torturing my mind in an attempt to believe the man has a conscience.

Then there is Senator Ted Stevens, recently awarded the distinction of being the longest serving GOP senator in history. Alaska’s money machine of bridge to nowhere fame, who in November 2005 was still looking for weapons of mass destruction under the desert sand in Iraq, who was one of eight senators who opposed McCain’s 2006 amendment banning torture. Stevens does indeed answer letters, but his staffers remove his trademark arrogance in exchange for nonsense they find under the sand where their heads are buried.

I am down to Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to her seat in 2002 by her father, a long term GOP Senator who most recently might be remembered as having been thoroughly embarrassed by winning only 18% of the GOP vote in the primary when he sought another term as governor. Why would I trust her to be responsive, and more, a person of integrity among the halls of Congress that echoes with their timid fear of being voted out of office?

Am I fooling myself that she might genuinely care? Was her granting the peace community of Juneau the title of patriotic a year ago nothing other than a cheap gesture aimed to disarm our grievances?

I reach a place where the idea of impossible suggests my time would be better invested elsewhere. But the impossible is only free to manage its defining power if I turn away to seek something less. There is always a maybe, a hope, a dream, that just one more attempt may break down the barrier and reveal the purity of the blue sky.

Even here in Southeast Alaska, when the sun does shine, the impossible changes hats and it momentarily seems normal to forget months of clouds and rain and the record 17 feet of snow we had this year. I spent the past few mornings glancing outside my window as the sun’s filtered rays gradually lit up the tall spruce trees. The snow still lingers, but every low growing bush is standing straight and tall and proud now, eager to bud and turn the landscape every shade of green imaginable. In between peeks to Spring’s promise, I thought and wrote amid the internal debate about chasing the impossible.

April 22, 2007

Re: Iraq War & Your letter of March 27

Dear Senator Murkowski

I received your letter of March 27 which included the two page “opinion editorial” that you wrote following a weekend trip to Iraq. While I appreciate your sharing these observations with me, there remain several questions I’ve asked that you have yet to answer.

I offer no apology for the length of this letter. I am forced to reiterate as best as I can each of these matters that I’ve sought your attention on before. And of course, the subject deserves more discussion, and contains more questions and concerns than I can begin to hope to express here.

Training of Iraqi Security Forces

Just last week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that all the tours of active-duty troops currently in Iraq or preparing to deploy there will be extended from one year to 15 months. And he also indicated that these extensions will likely continue well into 2008. So again I ask the question: where are the Iraqi security forces that the administration supposedly made a priority to train so our troops can come home?

This week the Washington Bureau of the McClatchy News reported that the training of Iraqis is no longer a priority. Citing numerous anonymous sources, reporter Nancy A. Youssef claims that “[m]ilitary planners have abandoned the idea that standing up Iraqi troops will enable American soldiers to start coming home soon and now believe that U.S. troops will have to defeat the insurgents and secure control of troubled provinces.”

A month ago the Texas Observer wrote a lengthy article about Colonel Ted Westhusing who committed suicide in Iraq almost two years ago. Westhusing oversaw the training the Iraqi security forces. Before he took his life, he left a note for his superior officers, including General David Petraeus. He wrote that they were only interested in their careers and provided no mission support, and closed by saying he “cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars.”

When the tour of the 172nd Stryker Brigade was extended and redeployed to Baghdad last July, I wrote you and raised the issue about training of the Iraqi security forces, and also copied you the letter I delivered to Secretary Rumsfeld posing the same question. In both letters I referenced a lengthy and detailed report by former army Lieutenant Joe W. Guthrie which appeared in the American Conservative. He also called the mission a lie, stating “I believed in my mission, and I wanted the Iraqis I was training to run their own country. But this wasn’t an American priority.”

I recognize that two personal accounts and anonymous sources don’t deliver the verdict of failure or worse, fraud and abuse. But when I wrote to you at the end of January, I also referenced the Iraq Study Group report which revealed that the mission to train and equip the Iraqis was seriously under funded.

At the same time that report was being published, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey predicted that the "Iraqi security forces will reach their goal of 325,000 trained and equipped members" by the end of 2006.

Where are they? The priority of this policy stated by the President and the claims of success are seriously undermined by this evidence. The President’s hiding behind the mantra of supporting the troops is becoming exceedingly hollow nonsense if his primary plan to get them out of Iraq has been failing almost since its inception.

I believe I have a right and an obligation to continue to seek answers from you on this matter, and not just because my son expects to be deployed again to Iraq within the next 12 months.

Under reporting of civilian casualties

Last September I was one of six military family members who wrote to you and urged you to call for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation as Secretary of Defense. Our complaint focused on false statements he made to those of us who attended a meeting of families of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. While boasting of early success for Operation Together Forward II, the figures he quoted regarding the count of civilian casualties in Baghdad were later revealed to have deliberately excluded certain types of deaths. In October we again wrote to you seeking answers on this issue.

In my last letter I pointed out to you that the Iraq Study Group chastised the military command for significantly under-reporting the violence in Iraq for the sake of minimizing “discrepancy with policy goals.”

These were real problems. Does the administration and military command in Iraq continue to issue politically motivated reports intended to shield the President from further criticism for the absolute failure this unnecessary and unjust war has been? How am I supposed to accept you weren’t similarly being misled during your visit to Iraq when you can’t provide a direct response to such questions?

US Military Bases in Iraq

Since December 2005, the Juneau People for Peace and Justice have sent three letters seeking your knowledge and formal position on the construction of permanent military bases in Iraq. You have never responded in writing. The only reply was through a statement made to the press by your spokesperson, Kevin Sweeney, after seven other activist groups supported us in the last letter that was copied to the news media this past January. Mr. Sweeney stated that “the United States does have a clear policy regarding bases and military installations” based upon language in the 2007 defense appropriation bill prohibiting any spending on permanent military installations or bases in Iraq.

The language he referred to only applied to the money allocated during the cycle of that budget bill. It is not a policy but merely a temporary stipulation when it is tied to the short term duration of funding legislation. It seems this is the reason the Democrats in Congress included the prohibition of construction of permanent bases in Iraq in the current supplemental legislation. That provision wouldn’t have been necessary if the conviction Mr. Sweeney implied was real. That it isn’t real seems to be the reason why Iraq Study Group called for the President to reject the notion that US seeks to maintain permanent bases. He still hasn’t done so.

Furthermore, our questions were not limited to the issue of policy. We have asked how much money has been spent on the bases already constructed, and for your interpretation of the purpose of those bases as detailed in all the past supplemental budgets approved by Congress. These questions, like the others, remain unanswered.

Our democracy is only as strong as the people it claims to represent. The attitude of far too many politicians, in Congress and in the White House, is that the power of their position grants them the privilege of limiting their responses to their constituency to much less than the full truth, if indeed they respond at all. The result is not a populace sufficiently informed to act as the final check and balance on our government.

The paradox of political power lies in the sharing of truth. We are all better served by honesty rather than incomplete discussion and rhetoric aimed at preserving the strength of one’s position. By empowering the people you serve, you also raise the level of visibility and credibility of those who would oppose you. But that risk is necessary if you are to place the health of our democracy before your personal position as the incumbent representative elected by the people.

Noted psychologist and author James Hillman writes: “The relative weight of work and life, genius and person, haunts one’s life with the feeling of never being able to size oneself up. There is a constant play between importance and humility.”

The first corruption of the human soul occurs when this psychic tension is compromised for the sake of one’s prestige or power. None of us have the answers, and none of us are free from the vulnerability of believing we do unless we strive to hold in check the integrity of our own conscience.

I find it difficult to give any credence to your impressions that a weekend in Iraq gave you a thorough and meaningful understanding the nature of the violence in Iraq. I wonder how many Iraqis you spoke to who consider themselves to be “subjects of a repressive American occupation” as alluded to in the Study Group report. I wonder how you imply to have any better grasp about the nature of the violence in Iraq when they tell us that “our government still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of the militias.” I wonder if you went to Iraq seeking the truth through questions that begin in your conscience or only in a political capacity as a Senator.

The Iraq Study Group expressed a true and absolute necessity that we “deserve a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric ... Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people.” Yet I receive neither after writing or contributing to more than a dozen letters to you with substantive questions and valid concerns during the past year.

I trusted you would invest your integrity in a sincere effort to search for truthful answers to these questions. I expect you to offer an honest defense of your position. If your responses are avoiding the subjects rather than engaging with us in these serious issues, then it seems you’re being led by politics, not your conscience which would be guiding you to seek an end to funding further failure.


Rich Moniak

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Conscientious objection - a civil right not to participate in an illegal war

Should citizens of the United States be legally exempt from paying that portion of their federal income taxes that would be applied to the Department of Defense budget in a time of war if a citizen is a conscientious objector to war:

  1. as determined by the same legally adopted criteria applied to conscientious objectors in the military, which is “a person who objects to participation in all forms of war, and whose belief is based on a religious, moral or ethical belief system”; or
  2. because the legality of a war is in doubt, that within a citizen’s conscionable understanding, he/she believes the war violates the Constitution and/or international treaties ratified by the US Congress and signed by the President into law.

Unknown to most Americans, there is a movement to address this question in regard to the first already established definition of conscientious objector. The National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund is lobbying for a re-introduction of the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act into the 109th Congress. This proposed legislation has roots going back to 1971. However, it is centered upon the affirming the religious freedom of taxpayers who are conscientiously opposed to participation in all wars. Current legislative efforts do not propose to expand the idea to objections on the basis of a war being carried out in violation to the laws of the nation.

Where does that leave people opposed to our nation’s illegitimate military actions in other nations, most particularly the current war in Iraq? We are essentially left to the conscientious decision to either engage in forms of protest while submitting to the state and/or commit acts of civil disobedience.

Henry David Thoreau is often thought of as the first champion of civil disobedience. In 1849 his essay titled Resistance to Civil Government was published. Very much like today’s antiwar activists, Thoreau was concerned about the legitimacy of a war waged by his nation and the tax dollars he paid to support it.

The Mexican-American War broke out in 1846. When President James K. Polk asked Congress to declare war, he claimed that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.” The battle he referred to actually took place near the Rio Grande River, today the border between Texas and Mexico, but at the time it was land both nations claimed. Many Americans believed Polk deliberately provoked the Mexicans by sending troops into territory the nation understood was between the disputed boundaries.

Thoreau wrote that the war was “the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool”. He refused to pay taxes as a symbolic gesture of opposition to the war. His act of “civil disobedience” led to his arrest and a night in jail.

Although Thoreau acted alone, the collective goal of civil disobedience is aimed at providing a legal remedy to the system and laws believed to be unjust. The civil rights movement of the 60s, led by Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement in India, are two of the most successful examples of the power of civil disobedience to accomplish its objectives.

Today, as the war in Iraq moves into its fifth year, many Americans continue to express opposition to our government’s continued funding of the war. There is a call by many to engage in acts of civil disobedience, to act upon our conscience and risk arrest, with the obvious goal of expediting an end to the war and occupation.

Within the military ranks there has been one commissioned officer who has followed his conscience and acted in a civilly disobedient manner. In June 2006, Lieutenant Ehren Watada publicly stated his intentions to refuse orders to deploy to Iraq.

Watada did not seek conscientious objection status. He understood that he did not conform to the narrow legal definition of a person who objects to participation in all forms of war based on a religious, moral or ethical belief system. His requests to resign his commission and to serve in Afghanistan were both denied.

Watada elected to refuse orders to deploy based on his belief that the war violated the Nuremberg Principals, which are adopted into US law through ratification of the United Nations Charter. In doing so, he recognized that he could be held accountable for his actions through court martial proceedings and risked facing several years in prison.

Principle VI of the Nuremberg Principals establishes a “Crime Against the Peace” as the “Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances” and “Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts”.

Watada claimed that the Iraq war constituted a crime against the peace because it was both a war of aggression and it violated the UN Charter. He exercised what he believed to be his moral responsibility to refuse orders to participate in the war. Principal IV states: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

The court martial took place in February, but prior to the actual trial, Watada was denied the ability to present his defense that the war was illegal. Witnesses with expertise in US and international law were prohibited from testifying. The military judge, LTC John M. Head, ruled that, based on precedence established in the Court of Military Appeals “an accused may not excuse his disobedience of an order to proceed to foreign duty on the ground that our presence there does not conform to his notions of legality”. He concluded in the pretrial ruling that the order to deploy was lawful.

The court martial ended in a mistrial over the disagreement in meaning of a pretrial stipulation in which Watada admitted to the facts of the case, that he did disobey orders and miss movement to deploy, and that he spoke publicly about the reasons for his actions. The judge attempted to bind the stipulation into an admission of guilt, whereas Watada maintained his innocence of the basis that his moral beliefs dictated his duty to disobey what he believed were illegal orders.

It would seem that there is no purpose to the Nuremberg Principals if, as Judge Head stated in his decision, that the order to deploy soldiers is a nonjusticiable political question. What soldier can take a stand against the war’s legal merits if the matter is left to political arena? And the question of moral choices remains relevant beyond that of a conscientious objector. It clearly reaches in the realm of law and order in a civil society and the measuring of one’s conscience in regard to established laws.

In his essay on civil disobedience Thoreau asks us to consider how to respond to what we believe are unjust laws. “[S]hall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?

Is it sufficient to wonder about this in terms of either/or? Does civil disobedience alone lead to a legal remedy to undo the unjust laws?

While leaders like Gandhi and King were indeed jailed more often and more seriously than Thoreau, and had followers jailed as they were, their movements also inspired great sympathy for their cause that contributed to the shift in public conscience. Collectively these brought about the independence of India and the Civil Rights legislation in America that Gandhi and King strived for.

The point is that civil disobedience does indeed have a role in bringing the Iraq war and occupation to an end. But alone it will not provide for a legal basis for soldiers and citizens to object to this or future wars on the basis of the failure of our government to abide by our nation’s laws and the international laws America has agreed to abide by.

The bounds of conscientious objection need to be expanded, for military and civilians alike. The law needs to include the right to refuse to participate on the moral belief that just laws are being violated, consistent with the Nuremberg Principals for which LT Ehren Watada is taking a noble and courageous stand.

Congress isn’t prepared to consider such changes to the law. When we consider that the granting of conscientious objector status to civilians has failed to become law for 35 years, it’s clear that without a people’s movement, our government will continue to have the power to force submission to their actions regardless of our moral and ethical beliefs by threatening imprisonment or monetary penalties that few are willing to risk.

Tax resistance not be civil disobedience, it should be a civil right, for a war that violates the laws of our country. This won’t change without widespread public support, which first requires awareness and education to the relatively simple Nuremberg Principals and the limits of recognized conscientious objection. How do we reach the general public? Would such issues and questions be appropriately asked of the American public through the ballot box?

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Secrets and deceit - can we run the world this way?

Another scandal in the executive branch, and once more the reading public gets an earful of phrases like “I don’t recall” and “I can’t remember”. The current tale is of the musical chair variety with Kyle Sampson undermining his former boss by claiming that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should certainly recall what our chief law enforcement officer says he can’t. Last month a jury rejected Scooter Libby’s claim of memory lapses when they convicted him of lying under oath to a grand jury.

It’s easy to be disbelieving of the obvious nonsense used by politicians to avoid accountability for behavior deemed unacceptable. But the revealing idea here may be that they are actually being honest once they are finally caught.

In his book Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg weaves a chronological history of his personal involvement in Vietnam War policy making during two presidential administrations. The power in the Pentagon Papers, which brought him into the national spotlight as one of the most daring government whistle blowers in history, is all about secrets and lying.

“Once I was inside the government” he writes, “my awareness of how easily and pervasively Congress, the public, and journalists were fooled and misled contributed to a lack of respect for them and their potential contribution to better policy.”

He also describes the players as consummate insiders who by having “the inside dope” felt “important, fully engaged, on an adrenalin high much of the time. Clearly it was addictive.” And like all addicts, he explains the insider turned out by a change within an administration was often looking for an avenue back in for a new fix.

Ellsberg’s personal epiphany wouldn’t come until several years after being wired to the inside. The rationale that allowed him to participate from the start was that “we were doing our very best and that no other team in the running to replace us was likely to deal with all these challenges much better then we could”.

Imagine the power of personal convictions being groomed next to the ability to lie effectively and often, all falling into place to serve a patriotic duty. And the longer one is hooked on “the inside dope”, the farther from reality and truth they might likely venture, all in the name of the national interest. Like the typical addict, and criminal, the inside deceiver isn't just good at what he does, he’s convinced that, for him, it’s not even wrong.

Libby was the best of the best insiders operating almost as high as one can get. He was unaccountable to the voting public and of relatively low interest as a name to be dropped by the press until he was busted. Maybe it was a memory lapse regarding when he learned and to who he revealed Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA official. Perhaps he had become so accustomed to lying about so much more, and on such a regular basis, that he really couldn’t remember. Maybe because he believed it wasn’t wrong that all the specific lies being told made no impact on his memory. They were each just another vague run of the mill day at the office.

By no means does this exonerate Libby from the conviction he deserves. Neither should it garner any pity for being the scapegoat for an administration that took the country to war on more than a few whopping stories sold to Congress, the media, and the public. But to focus on Libby or the administration is to lose sight of the forest beyond the trees at its edge.

Secrets describes how widespread and “normal” the problem is. Our system is a breeding ground for people like Libby. And of course there’s Dick Cheney and others such as Donald Rumsfeld, who have left a few times then come back for more.

It seems way too few have the integrity of conscience like Ellsberg, who, after only four years on the inside, came to recognize the complete fallacy that lying to the world could lead to meaningful results. But even though his story reveals deceit in the executive branch that seems to parallel what we still see today, it seems doubtful that most of our long term politicians and their staffers and advisors aren’t also inflicted with this ego centric disease.

Can Congress even find the truth about the war and occupation in Iraq without coming clean about the inner workings of each smaller empire they rule over? They must be utterly confused by the constant stream of mind games and heady manipulation they inflict and receive in return. Shouldn’t we wonder what’s really behind the lack of substance in the Iraq war supplemental budget bill passed by the Democrats? Does it begin with the callous but standard disregard for the truth, enabled by years of practice and an utterly false sense of duty?

What about George W. Bush, who successfully campaigned as an outsider immune to the corruption in Washington? Shouldn’t he be above the animalism of political survival to maintain the fix of power? Or is it possible that his vision of the truth was destroyed long ago by a family heritage built from years of disseminating deceit next to the illusion of a commitment to public service?

Ellsberg asked “Can you really run the world this way?” It seems our government is doing a lousy job of it. So does the burden of change fall on we the people? Yet like Ellsberg, does it need to feel personal to find the power in the revelation that only the truth will resolve the chaos we’ve created?

Perhaps the meaning of Libby’s conviction is not about high level corruption in the Bush administration or Congress. Perhaps we can’t restore the integrity into our way of life until we’re ready to look at our individual truths and addictions used to preserve our minutely insignificant empires.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Questions of courage keep the war personal, from the boots on the ground to the White House

There is no honor in judging the courage of a soldier’s actions during a battle by those who weren’t there. And I’ve never been there. I’ve never served in the military. I can only wonder how I might respond to a threat to my life, real or perceived, during war. I can’t say whether the questions my conscience raises as I wonder from afar would even appear in the heat of battle.

But there is also no honor in downplaying or ignoring the death of innocent civilians in Iraq. The question of courage for us at home is an internal battle that begins with the will to consider the guilt for those lives lost. Is the war worth the sacrifice of our moral integrity? Is this question the same for those without loved ones in Iraq? Does it haunt our “commander-in-chief” as does me, the father of a soldier who has seen too much combat there?

Two months ago I listened to Darrell Anderson testify as I sat on the panel at a Citizen’s Hearing about the legality of the war. Anderson served in Iraq in 2004 with the 1st Armored Division. He encountered combat in Baghdad and Najaf and was awarded the Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel from a roadside bomb.

Those are Anderson’s credentials, so to speak, the simple summary of duty that leaves out the personal story. This part alone deserves to be honored in the traditional manner we recognize the courage of all who have served. But it’s another form of courage which I both admired and found myself stuttering to measure alongside that of other front line soldiers.

Anderson told the story of his unit being under fire during an April afternoon while guarding a police station in Baghdad. They had lost a few soldiers, leaving them all on edge. But as the night wore on he said it got quieter, which seemed to encourage some local residents to attempt to flee the area.

He was one of about 15 soldiers with weapons ready, including a 50-caliber machine gun. To ward off approaching vehicles that might have been armed with car bombs or desperate insurgents, they established a lighted perimeter. Three vehicles turned back without incident. The fourth one penetrated the lit perimeter and came to a stop in front of his position. Anderson’s orders were to fire, but he didn’t, and says that after the windows rolled down they saw two adults in the front seats and two children in the back.

The story appears longer in the words to tell it then the likely unfolding of the real event. Listening then, and thinking back now, there is no way to know how long Anderson’s mind considered what action he should take. Was it bravery that allowed him to wait, or fear of making a mistake? In this instance, are they the same, being that his life also appeared to be threatened?

Ever since listening to him testify I’ve believed Anderson’s act was an example of exceptionally disciplined courage. But letting it rest there hasn’t happened. Instead it’s built a courtroom conflict in my head where the jury continues to deliberate.

I have frequently been visited by a scene from the legendary battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War. I imagined myself as a soldier in another time, under the order “don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes” as the British Redcoats advanced up the hill.

Wondering how I would have responded in such as situation isn’t a new thought now. In my innocent youth I shook with the fear whenever I’d think about such a defining moment of courage. I could almost feel my eyes wander seeking signals from other soldiers, only to find them all intently focused on the approaching enemy. I imagined I’d never be brave enough to execute the will to hold off acting to save my life. I’d either fire too soon or flee. I’d fail.

But Anderson’s story hasn’t haunted me by calling forth a perceived cowardice from so long ago. My admiration for his bravery has become attached to the contradictory response from his superior officer who openly berated him for not firing as ordered and threatened him with punishment if he failed again.

It’s not difficult to reconcile the different eras of these wars. The Minutemen atop Bunker Hill faced an enemy in uniform carrying weapons in plain visible sight. Self defense wasn’t about guesswork. The orders that day stem from a strategy intended to make the most effective use the limited accuracy of the soldier’s muzzle loading muskets.

In Baghdad Anderson’s regiment was equipped with automatic weapons where the constant barrage of bullets diminished the absolute necessity for accuracy in every shot. And the approaching motor vehicle may have been delivering a bomb with the driver, a suicide mission by an enemy intended to inflict mass causalities on his unit.

The officers in charge in both battles would issue orders deemed essential to protect his troops while at the same time forming the strategy expected to win the battle. Even though they are focused on the entire unit’s performance and not the individual, the two are intertwined in the immediate fight and in the war itself.

But the battle in Baghdad never happened. And the lives of a family of civilians were spared. Wasn’t Anderson right to extend his courage on behalf of the innocent? Or do orders following the established rules of engagement take precedent? If the enemy’s strategy creates the uncertainty such as the kind that Anderson faced, shooting first and asking questions later seems to be in our soldiers’ best interest. Did Anderson wrongfully put his fellow soldiers at risk?

To declare Anderson acted with the highest level of courage also risks impugning the bravery of any soldier who follows orders in a similar situation. Their first act of courage is being there while I sit comfortably second guessing the wisdom of such orders and rules. I haven’t been able to muster the strength to openly consider Anderson a hero.

Perhaps the two month avoidance of analyzing the issue more precisely reaches into a personal dilemma. My oldest son was in Mosul and then Baghdad during a 16-month tour in Iraq. Did Michael face such a situation? If he did, how did he respond? As a staff sergeant would he have reprimanded Anderson’s failure to obey his orders?

Finally, the real haunting questions reveal themselves. Which choice would I want Michael to make? Does the taking of an innocent life matter less to me if he believed he was acting in self defense? Is it my selfish impulse that wants to interfere with my distinction between right and wrong? Have I been lacking the courage to ask him these questions because I’m just grateful he’s home, or because I don’t want to share his burden if he did kill a civilian in a similar set of circumstances?

We all want our soldiers to come home. These men and women represent us all, regardless of whether or not we support their mission in Iraq. So even though most Americans will never be confronted by the direct assault of the war’s psychological horror, these questions don’t belong to military families alone. They just reach more directly to test the core of our moral beliefs.

The country as a whole tries to measure the war’s success or failings by the number of U.S. fatalities. This global view asks another question. If success is even partly defined by the casualty count of our troops, when does the price become so high that the majority of Americans would choose failure to win over the loss any more U.S. soldiers?

The steady procession of flagged draped coffins arriving from Vietnam bled the collective compassionate heart of the nation’s people until it broke the back of our government and brought that war to its failed conclusion. It’s the reason why the Bush administration placed a prohibition on photographing the arrival of our dead from this war. But even better is to minimize our losses. Is this why our nation’s military leaders, civilian and uniformed, justify rules of engagement that immorally devalue the lives of innocent civilians?

President Bush and I have one thing in common as we consider whether Anderson acted heroically or in defiance of legitimate orders. We are both safe from the conflict. But my son fought in Iraq, and thus I have to look the demon in the eye and ask do I place Michael’s life ahead of a child caught in the crossfire.

Bush doesn’t see an individual soldier as I do. Giving us soulless phrases like collateral damage may keep the war impersonal, but he is fooling himself if he thinks the burden of guilt for every civilian death doesn’t rise from up the boots on the ground to the White House.

by Rich in Juneau