When the war in Iraq began I knew that on military grounds alone, we were in for a big and sustained epoch because the economies and faith convictions threads that hold society together in the Middle East transcends nations. Invading one nation affects the entire region. I also knew that there would be unexpected explosions and new tensions between clans, religious bodies and nations where death and destruction would unravel tenuous alliances built up over generations and centuries. My worst case worry was a descent into a permanent state of armed conflict at which the US would be at the center. Even though I suspected it, I didn’t quite believe something so catastrophic could happen.
I naively thought that the lessons of Viet Nam, Central America and other interventions had been thoroughly explored and refined into a military doctrine, namely that the enemy would only be defeated by a combination of positive social engagement, listening, and occasional use of force. I thought that the professional military leaders, in spite of the short sightedness of the civilian leadership, had honed a doctrine of warfare consistent with the times that required attention to people’s needs for security, health and hope for the future. Regardless of my state of non-confidence in the long range values of a single super power, I hoped that the US military was ready to mix listening to local opinion leaders with the force which is their hallmark, to stitch together something less than peace but something better than my worst fears. I was wrong, very wrong. Force was the primary strategy.
As Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Pentagon correspondent, has laid out in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq how the US military largely neglected whatever lessons might have been learned in its post world war interventions. It reverted instead to a “kill the enemy” and “destroy the insurgency” model of warfare after proclaiming victory shortly after the intervention began in late March 2003. In the early months after the invasion there was little conversation with local leaders since the invading force believed local leaders with Ba’athist party membership had to be punished by prohibiting their participation in the new order. As a result basic security and services in neighborhoods waned because the Coalition that led the invasion had no plan to deal with these matters. A bad economy got worse and the structures of society except for religious institutions and kinship connections disappeared – this, in a society that in the 1980s had significant momentum.
Two incidents from my summer 2003 visit stand out. A neighbor and one time senior bank manager about my age living in a house near our Baghdad apartment invited me for a late afternoon snack and chat. He was curious about our group, its intentions and its work. Most of all he was anxious for a thoughtful exchange of views. During the two hour conversation we sampled from the richness of our separate lives. Since this was our first meeting, my life experiences had taught me not to expect to go really deep. But our talk turned to the behavior of US soldiers on the street. At one point he leaned forward and said to me, “Can you explain to me why the US Forces, especially their commanders never talk to us.” I had no answer except to say that evidently they were not instructed to talk to Iraqis. It was not part of the mission. The banker’s question helped me understand why no one in the US civilian or military structures seemed to have answers for our peacemaker team about the treatment or intentions regarding detainees. Few people in the U. S. Command structure were consulting or listening to Iraqi civil society leaders and the life and death matters they were raising.
I filed this conversation away with others like it until the day before I was to depart from Iraq when a very good friend rushed to our apartment to invite me and a few of my colleagues to a special luncheon. Although our attendance necessitated changes in many plans we agreed to go because we knew that the friend attached some significance to the event. We went with some trepidation because we thought we might be asked to make interventions with the US Commanders regarding matters that were beyond our abilities or mission of peacemaking. When we arrived at the meeting there were fifteen people gathered in a circle, largely persons from Fallujah who enjoyed senior rank in their community. They wanted to know what we could do about the deteriorating situation. We said we would present our perspectives to the press and encourage our supporters to convey their concerns to their government legislators. Regularly we returned to the problem of detainees the main focus of the peacemaker team. The people from Fullujah hinted at deep divisions and explosive possibilities in Iraqi society and particularly their city. Could we help? I heard them saying to me, “What can you and the people you claim to represent do to avert a catastrophe?” I was not satisfied with my answers.
After two hours the meeting and eating ended with warm handshakes and embraces. Their spokesman who was at that time a senior person in the newly minted provisional government’s security apparatus took me aside after receiving a call on his cell phone from his US military liaison. “My extended family” he said, “ has a person who was picked up in one of the US army raids and we are all scared. What can you do” When I finished talking to him, others in the circle also came to request help for relatives. This was seven months before the Abu Ghraib situation shocked the world with gruesome pictures of detainee abuse, and six months before the first battle of Fallujah which was ignited by insurgents ambushing four military contractors who were delivering food.. The burned corpses of the contracted foreign workers were hung on a bridge over the Euphrates River while the cameras of the world were in focus. Were these the catastrophes that were inferred in our earlier conversation? Should I have read more deeply into their talk of deep division and explosive possibilities? How should our peacemaker team have refined our mission?
The U.S. military entered Iraq with fire power and a mission to kill the enemy and the expectation that this would lead to liberation and democracy. The President’s mission as delivered to commanders had little to do with listening or the respectful treatment of Iraqi institutions built up over generations. Iraqi society was left to wallow in violence that continues to the present. Even as this was unfolding we found many curious persons in Iraq, including students, religious leaders and professionals with great interest in expressions of nonviolence to pre-empt the impending cycle of violence. But we were not prepared to respond fully to these opportunities. We lacked an overall strategy that could encourage or channel this interest into effective Iraqi action. We also lacked enough trained full time workers who knew how to listen to Iraqis and think creatively and outside the box of orthodox nonviolence.
I began this reflective piece by trying to provide a snapshot of the American battle plan which until the present has only demonstrated superior firepower and addiction to force. This was a battle plan that called for what armies do best, killing and breaking things. What it lacked was a strategy for the peace that people could understand and discuss. When I left Viet Nam 40 years ago I believed that peace people could learn from the incessant training, reflection and organization of armies. But as I watch the Iraq story unfold I have an overwhelming sense that just like armies peace people including myself are locked into formulas for peace work – campaigns, demonstrations, lobbying and occasional trainings that have difficulty visioning and describing a real world without armies. The catastrophe in Iraq could have created the space for Iraqi people to think new thoughts and create new strategies. In the absence of stronger support and strategies, some found their way to safe places outside Iraq. Others joined the insurgencies. They did not need so much training on how to do demonstrations or listening to their people. They needed people to help create the space to plan, to train and to talk back when only violent tactics of killing the enemy were modeled. Aside from a few training opportunities the peace teams and the US military have a lot to learn.
I believe what is waiting to happen is more and varied experiments in peacemaking to be birthed in places of impending disaster around our world. What I do know is that in the midst of the debacles people are waiting and asking, “Where are the people with a strategy and follow through of the things that make for peace?”
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