PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Fort McCoy: Concerts and Patriotic Encounters by peaceprobe
August 23, 2008, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Iraq, Peacemaker spirit, Politics of Empire, Walk in Wisconsin 2008

Route 21  from Tomah, Wisconsin west to Sparta goes through hilly corn fields and woods.  After the tiny berg of Tunnel City the fields end and Fort McCoy begins.  Eighty miles northwest of Madison this Fort is one of the few major army training bases in the Northern Midwest.  The base provides training for troops headed for Iraq and other combat zones.  It also provides jobs for civilians.  

On this Sunday in August with reporters and cameras looking on the base prepared for the visit of 50 peace walkers on Witness Against War pilgrimage from Chicago to St. Paul.  Twelve walkers would seek to enter the base to talk with soldiers and officers about war and peace.  I was one of the twelve.  The 350 mile walk was organized by Chicago based Voices for Creative Nonviolence.  

I joined the group at Tunnel City five miles east of the main entrance to Fort McCoy. State Route 21 was thick with security cars among army trucks, Hummers, SUVs and other vehicles, some out for a Sunday excursion and others basking in vacation days.  Horn blowing and waves from people encouraged us.  No harsh fists or crypto-patriotic shouts.  By 11 am we reached the main entrance only to discover that it had been closed and, that persons seeking entrance must go on.

The night before an Alice Cooper heavy metal concert on the base was not only opened to the entire community, it also challenged the trees and animals of the surrounding forests.   In thick darkness the rock concert sounds were antiphonally answered by coyote calls. On days or nights when rock concert sounds don’t invade, the seven tiny mock villages hidden in the base’s woods are used as training territory.  In these simulated third world hamlets soldiers practice house raids, and  surveillance or capture of hostile villagers who are thought to exist in distant lands.  In communities along the Mississippi River people in need of employment are hired at $12 per hour to imitate enemy village life.  We were not able to assess the risks for temporary employment of this sort.  Retirement benefits are nonexistent because enemy village war game employees are considered temporary help.  

Members of the Department of the Army Police, a civilian body now used for security duty that was once the responsibility of military police, greeted us and refused our polite requests for entry to Fort McCoy in order to complete our mission of dialogue.  As I began the walk  into the grand entry way where rock concert goers had travelled the previous night I could overhear police orders barked into tightly gripped two way radios. “Bring on the teams.”  I assumed that they were not referring to Christian Peacemaker Teams but did not anticipate the twenty police deployed to meet our motley inter-generational group. For a moment I felt like I might be in a movie set.  The late morning sun was perfect.  Two very different forces were walking (marching might be a little strong) and something was about to happen.  Even after we were stopped,  frisked and placed in stiff plastic hand cuffs I wanted to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  Everything seemed so choreographed.  

Inside the security building I was interviewed, photographed, fingerprinted and ticketed.  I would be informed when I had to appear in court, probably in Madison.  The plastic cuffs bit into my arms but I managed to carry on reasonably human conversations with the officers.  As my processing moved towards completion, I engaged the Sargent who commanded the unit, regarding strategies of security.  I explained I had been working on security matters from a nonviolent point of view for many years.  I also noted that no doubt his responsibilities came about because of advanced education, degrees and careful reflection on the theories of effective police work.  I pressed him to talk about his own theory of security and asked if he believed that the best way to achieve security was by way of overwhelming force. 

In our conversation I reminded him that we are in fact both concerned about the security of the human family and  even in his text books there were various theories that suggested minimal and even no use of force.   Discussing security with a Sargent who commands police for the Department of the Army while in hand cuffs may be a little disjunctive but I think we had a tiny but worth while two way conversation.  Judging from the honks and waves of support from soldiers outside the base I suspect the reception inside beyond the guard post might have been even more cordial than the arresting greeting from police on that August day.  

After two hours of processing we were driven several miles beyond the base and released.  Finally I felt like I had departed the movie set for good.  Every one had been polite, too nice.  What was achieved?  Perhaps local people who have long held uneasiness about the cultural, economic and military influence of the base were encouraged – at least they said they were.  Folks in surrounding towns thanked us for joining with local people in the witness.  And for me there was an added  personal dimension.

On many occasions in Iraq I spent hours in homes that had been the object of US army raids.  Was Fort McCoy one of the places where army recruits learned to turn over furniture, threaten families in the middle of the night and cart off young men and husbands for long hours of interrogation at Abu Gharib?  Would Wisconsin tolerate this behavior in the homes of its own residents?  Could our nation survive such a primitive strategy?  Coming here this Sabbath day to pray and to shine the light on military tactics abroad was one more response to those Iraq home visits. 

I was tempted to seek temporary employment in those mock villages of the forest where I could feel the energy of a practice raid first hand.  I know the participating soldiers come from orderly villages and farms like those we passed in our walk.  I know they were not trained to do house raids in their homes, churches or high schools.  What would the people at the English Lutheran Church in La Crosse think if they saw the overturned furniture, devastated families and trashed homes created by Wisconsin citizens?  Does the Governor understand the thin veneer of pseudo-patriotism and public policy that allows him to send his own citizens off to distant lands to do house raids?. 

Now tell me, those American flags pasted so prominently on police uniforms, what exactly do they mean?   In times like this I get confused   My mind is teased with questions about patriotism.  Who is the patriot, the one wearing the flag or the unarmed detained walker here in the heartland?

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