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.

by Rich in Juneau