Filed under: Detainees, Iraq, Militarism, Nonviolence, Philippines, Politics of Empire
This is Gene Stoltzfus’s last essay, completed on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, just before he headed out on his beloved motor-assisted bicycle on the first spring day of the year. He picked up his U.S. mail in International Falls, MN. Then on his return journey, less than a kilometer from home in Ft. Frances, ON, his heart stopped. Please feel free to leave comments after this post on his blogsite: https://peaceprobe.wordpress.com. For more background on Gene’s life and updates on his memorial services, see: http://www.cpt.org.
Gene Stoltzfus, 1940-2010, Presente!
–Phil Stoltzfus, Gene’s nephew
–Dorothy Friesen, Gene’s wife
I have talked to survivors of military interrogation around the world who at some point thought they would not live for another day. I never write about it in the U.S. and Canada because it seems so unbelievable and out of place in a world of sanitized shopping malls and super highways. When I retell their stories I notice that people here fidget. But interrogation processes are one way in which martyrs are created. Martyrs in the original sense are “witnesses to the truth,” with a deep commitment of conscience that sustains them through moments of cruelty and abuse.
Some people are killed during interrogation. They never get to tell the story themselves. So I have learned to listen to those who narrowly avoid interrogation’s brush with death. This might be the time that you will prefer not to read on. But if you stop here you will skip over an important part of living and dying that stretches around the world and touches the entire human family.
I spent two hours in Iraq talking to a 22-year-old student who was arrested in a house raid along with two of his brothers. Until the time of his capture he was relatively uninvolved with anything political, not an unusual story in the Iraq of 2003. After his capture by American military personnel he was not allowed to sleep for two days. After 48 hours the American GIs told him that he would be killed unless he told them where Saddam Hussein was hiding. He was continuously blindfolded. He was told that his brother, taken into custody at the same time, was just now being shot. In the distance he could hear a gun being fired. If he didn’t want to die, he must tell all. Then nearby he heard a gun being cocked and felt a revolver touching his head. He expected to die. There was more shouting from the soldiers and then silence.
“I believed I would die,” he told me. “And then after a long wait I felt my hand to be sure I was still alive.” His blindfold was temporarily removed and then he was marched off to one of Iraq’s prison camps where he met others who experienced similar beatings and moments of terror. He was released three months later because of persistent outside intervention – an advantage that many disappeared people do not have.
My time with him left me exhausted and jolted me to wonder how I would respond to interrogation. Would I make up a story? Would I lie? Would something I say implicate others? Would I respond with anger or physical struggle? Would I go quietly to my death as some martyrs are reported to have done? Would anyone know how I died?
After my talk with the unlikely martyr, the connection of this Muslim student to my own ancestors in 16th-century Europe fluttered in my mind. Did the stories I read in my youth about the Anabaptist martyrs prepare me for this? Death by burning or drowning is now little practiced, but current authorities still believe that truth can be accessed by means of brutality. The pattern of torture used for their interrogation blended now with the people I was meeting. The Anabaptist stories recorded in the Martyrs Mirror (subtitled “The Bloody Theatre of the Anabaptists or Defenseless Christians who suffered and were slain from the time of Christ until the year AD 1660) are part of the continuous tapestry of state-sponsored cruelty reaching to our very own day.
In the late 1970s I worked in the Philippines. One day I was invited to meet a pastor and former political prisoner. The Marcos dictatorship had sent its military and paramilitary to his community and their tactics were designed to control popular discontent through cruelty, terror, domination, killing and confiscation of property. The pastor felt bound by his convictions to do what was possible to protect the people of his church. He was arrested and interrogated for weeks. His body was spent. Finally he was encased in a blindfold and told he would be killed. He felt the barrel of a revolver that touched the temple of his head and rested there for a time while his interrogator demanded that he give names of the people with whom he worked. “I was silent because I couldn’t think any more,” he told me.
“Were you afraid you would endanger others?” I asked. “Of course I was worried that what I said would implicate others but when the gun was put to my head I just expected to die. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I even thought about being a pastor but that didn’t seem very important in the moment. I was ready to die. I just told them to get it over with. During those days I thought about the martyrs. The interrogator didn’t pull the trigger. I don’t know why.”
I felt my gut twitch after the pastor described the near-death moment. Was there anything I could say or do? Anything healing? Anything personal? The pastor, like the Iraqi student 25 years later, only requested that I tell the world what happened to him. That was enough.
Accounts like these stories of people living on borrowed time reach back centuries to pre-Roman times and show me that the impulse to domination is still alive in our as-yet-uncivilized reptilian brain stem. In our time the word “martyr” has morphed from its root meaning of “witness to the truth” to a description of someone who dies for his or her beliefs. The Greeks and early Christians who used the term understood death to be a possible outcome of the path towards truth and light. Eventually “martyr” referred exclusively to those who died for their belief. Those who began as witnesses to truth became martyrs at the time of death. For the Muslim, shahada (martyrdom) also springs from the internal struggle that results in the witness to truth. Both religious traditions have departed from the core understanding of martyrdom in times of political conflict and triumphalism.
From where did my childhood curiosity arise to steal into my father’s study to read about the martyrs? Those drawings of torture and burning bodies awakened wonder within me. In one of my early return journeys to North America from the lands of torture – before I understood that torture techniques had their home here – I was introduced to a new psychological disease called the martyr complex – seeking persecution to fulfill an inward need. Had I been the unwitting recipient of this disease? Or was the use of the term “martyr complex” the work of a psychologist who had never met a torture victim or known the honored path to witness practiced by martyrs?
Church buildings pay tribute to martyrs, including long-forgotten soldiers who died in distant lands to protect the nation or empire. Their deeds are celebrated and interwoven with patriotism. I have visited churches in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Anabaptist martyrs, where they place the Martyrs Mirror on their altars before the service of worship and return it to a locked closet after the service. I once inquired about the influence of the book of martyrs in the life of worshipers and was told that, “Most of us have no idea about the stories in that book. It’s from another time.”
Why are soldiers and interrogators still trained in the craft of torture? Can moral outrage and attempts to protect the prisoner change things? Why do Christian crusaders or Muslim suicide bombers slip into patterns of domination that kill and destroy in a manner that cannot possibly reveal truth? Can respect for and veneration of martyrs draw us closer to the truth when the patterns of our lives are so remote from the authentic truth-seeking represented in martyrs?
Genuine martyrs appear when people believe that their witness on earth is connected to the whole of the universe. Martyrs are not inclined to draw attention to themselves, but their path can draw people to the glory and faith of a vision. Martyrs have all the foibles of the rest of us. Some may not deserve the label. In our human family great movements that push us to transcend boundaries with visions of hope produce martyrs. But organizations and movements become emasculated and ineffectual when they protect themselves too much from the risk of bold witness. On the other hand, they also undercut themselves when they slide into violence against others in order to try to control the outcome of their vision. We have the challenge of incarnating a blend of vulnerability and boldness.
The test of martyrdom is whether that particular witness to the truth helps to support and sustain the community’s commitment to a full-bodied vision of peace and justice. The martyrs are present with us and may be more powerful for their witness in death than they ever could have been in life.
Filed under: Nonviolent defence, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, drones, military contractors, military draft, peace, peacemaker teams, Taliban
In April 2004 the world was awakened to a horrible scene in Fallujah, Iraq. Insurgents had ambushed a vehicle carrying civilian U. S. Government mercenary contractors and killed them. Two of the burned corpses were hung from a bridge in downtown Fallujah where they dangled for several days as photos of them flashed around the world. Commentators immediately compared the Fallujah footage to that of dead American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. The victims in Somalia were American soldiers. The victims in Fallujah were American mercenaries employed by Blackwater Inc., renamed XE in 2007.
In this century we are entering a new era of mercenary warriors. From the strategic point of view, modern mercenaries fulfill a crucial requirement. They provide logistical and selected security support for invading forces in the field, and in addition on the political level they allow policy makers to engage in off-the-record, arms length and clandestine activities on the margins and outside of the law. This was formally called “plausible deniability”. In the recent past mercenary soldiers for profit have also served in Bosnia, Liberia, Pakistan, and Rwanda. They have guarded the Afghan President Karzai and built detention facilities in Guantanamo and elsewhere. On February 10, 2010, the Iraqi government ordered all Blackwater Inc. including subsidiaries out of Iraq or risk arrest. The order includes anyone involved with Blackwater in the deadly shooting incident in 2007 when they killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
Due to a hostile local population the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan have required heavily armed guards, escorts, and sharp shooters to provide logistical protection for the millions of tons of military supplies. It is dangerous work and requires people who have been trained. The contractors, some from third world nations like the Philippines also staff the kitchens, the PXs (tax-free general stores for soldiers that offers rock bottom prices) and provide thousands of other support activities. Most mercenary contractors who carry out security related functions are former military. The Pentagon argues that despite lavish salaries, using military contractors is cheaper than training soldiers for the work. What is not said is that if the American armed forces were to carry out all these tasks the U. S. Government would have to implement a military draft which would be unpopular and set up the sons and perhaps the daughters of the privileged classes for the danger and inconvenience of military service.
Paramilitary units in Colombia, Philippines, Haiti, Afghanistan and many countries around the world perform similar functions to what private sector mercenary contractors do for the U. S forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. U. S. Operatives sometimes together with mercenaries have been involved in strategy formation, training, and sometimes in financing usually in conjunction with local government military groups. Even the Taliban got its start in the early 1980s as a paramilitary project developed and financed by U. S. personnel in conjunction with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Like the mercenary soldiers of Blackwater, virtually all of whom have had careers in the U. S. military, the Taliban grew up fighting and to this day this is the only profession they really know.
The Taliban and Colombian thug-like paramilitary units function at the margin of traditional customary law. Modern mercenary contractors often also function outside constitutional law. Both blur the lines between judicial process and police activity arrogating to themselves life and death decisions that any responsible society must legislate. These soldiers know the law of the gun. When or if constitutional government is restored they seek a place within the institutions of security work, but rarely leave their habits of threat, killing and improvised seat-of-the-pants law making. Former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld insisted that war by mercenary contract is cheaper but his calculations failed to include the re-education of the first generation of Taliban fighters back into civilian life from combat with the Soviets in the 1980s. Nor did his calculations include the cost to the American people of the expansion of its imperial culture of security.
Mercenaries working under private corporations also have carried out specialized tasks for the CIA including the loading of Hellfire missiles onto Predator drones. They have engaged in search, capture or assassination of enemy leaders in areas like the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officially, the Blackwater mercenaries killed in the 2004 events in Fallujah were in the line of duty “to protect food shipments.” However there is apparently some doubt if there were in fact any food shipments on that day.
In 2003-4 I made several trips to Iraq. At the close of the first trip, an Iraqi with whom I had consulted extensively, rushed to the CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) apartment. He insisted that I must meet with some very important people for an extended lunch 16 hours before I was to depart from Baghdad. Our CPT schedule was piled full of planning and projects. I didn’t want to go to the dinner because I suspected I was about to be the recipient of a mountainous request that CPT had neither the personnel nor the money to respond to. But I agreed to go with other CPTers. The dinner turned out to be a gathering of representatives from some of the senior families of Fallujah. I figured it out about two thirds of the way through introductions. The entire group was made up of leaders. I waited knowing that they wanted something.
They asked about CPT. I knew that they already knew a great deal because two persons in the circle had spent extended time with us. We explained our decision to focus on detainees, house raids and the rights of Iraqis. We gave two examples of cases we were working on. We were frank about our limitations. There was some silence, and then one person asked if we ever do anything outside of Baghdad. We said, “Yes.” Have you every been in Fallujah? “Yes we have visited Fallujah.” I thought I knew where the conversation was going so I didn’t ask anything further so that the conversation about Fallujah could not develop. I didn’t want them to ask if we could put a team in Fallujah. They persisted with broad hints about the needs of Fallujah.
As I left that meeting, the spokesperson of the group took me aside. He identified himself as a senior police officer in Iraq. As he prepared to say something to me his cell phone rang. It was his counterpart, a U. S. Colonel. I waited and tried not to listen to what was being said. The call ended. He looked at me and said, “The U. S. Forces detained my nephew some weeks ago. We can’t find him. Could CPT help us find my nephew?” I said we could try although our team was already over committed. We tried but we were not successful. I don’t know if his nephew survived detention. I don’t know if the police officer survived the last seven years.
This encounter took place six months before the first battle of Fallujah which followed the killing of Blackwater contractors. As I write this I wonder how many of the people in that circle on that day are still alive, still live in Iraq or have any normalcy in their lives. I wonder if an unarmed peacemaking team in Fallujah might have made a real difference to the U. S. strategy, leading not once but twice to the destruction of that city. I believe trained and disciplined unarmed peacemakers in good numbers could have done without arms what armed soldiers could not accomplish — protect the people of Fallujah.
The story does not have to end here. We are not condemned to surviving in a world where the law is decimated by successive generations of paramilitaries. But the answer will probably not come from the Pentagon nor from the White House which may not be able to escape the grasp of a citizenry whose houses of worship celebrate the institutions of violent intervention. Congressional efforts to rein in support for paramilitaries or mercenaries have been timid. We will know if unarmed spiritually based peacemakers can do this when we become even more resolved to create a corp that can be in the Fallujahs that are waiting to happen.
Every one of us is impacted by a dominant culture that insists that military or police force will make things right. Every day that culture tells us that dirty tricks usually done in secret are required for our survival. After all, it’s argued, someone has to do this dirty work. It’s called a noble work and the Blackwater mercenaries are required for the work. It will take an expanding world wide but grass roots culture reaching beyond national borders to fashion a body of Christian peacemakers to be an effective power to block the guns and be part of transforming each impending tragedy of war. Little by little there will be change.
Filed under: Digital/Star War, Nonviolence, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, conscience, counter insurgency, digital war, drones, Nonviolence, pacifism, robotic warfare
Last week Predator drones attacked in Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan and mistakenly killed civilians. We don’t know how many. The incidents are another warning like the messages of protest that Pakistanis have been trying to send Americans for the past few years. Despite the much ballyhooed precision of these air crafts and their weapons, they still kill civilians because corroborating intelligence on the ground is unreliable and this leads to flawed targeting.
The protection of civilians has been a most basic plank of all notions of just war for many nations going back 1600 years. The slide towards increased killing of civilians in war by national armies and as a corollary, the use of civilians as human shields is often overlooked. Tactics arising from the use of robotic weapons of war may increase the slide of disrespect for civilian life in war. This trend that brought us civilian casualties from Dresden to Hiroshima, from IEDs in Iraq to drones in Pakistan reflect the broad lines of increased disrespect for civilian life into the 21st century warfare in regular and insurgent armies.
During the final week of Lent this year I expect to travel to Las Vegas and to Creech AFB 45 miles northwest where the Predator pilots and their staffs are trained and local control rooms guide the planes in the 24 hour surveillance and attack assignments over Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. As I go I know that the Predators are just a tip of a vast array of robotic technology now being developed to make modern warfare “safer” for soldiers but more lethal for civilians.
The Predator and their Hellfire missiles are the air weapon delivery system of choice right now but maybe not for long. In the future the work of disarmament will be made even more complicated by robotic instruments of all kinds. The U. S. Army is working with universities to build micro fliers, tiny bird like flyers to be used for intelligence gathering and surveillance through its Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Alliance. Joseph Mait, manager of the Army Research Laboratory says,“ Our long-term goal is to develop technologies that can produce a map of a building interior or detect bombs,”
Big unmanned Predator like aircraft have lots of problems. They are still expensive to build, maintain and fly although they are much cheaper than the earlier generations of bombers. They can also be easy to spot. In Pakistan I was told that children in remote areas have games they play called, “spotting the Predators”. Shrinking those vehicles to a few ounces will not only change the children’s games but will give an up-close view of who is doing what, when and where.
According to Discovery Magazine, Haibo Dong of Wright State University is working on a four-winged robot, the Wright Dragon flyer. The designers complain that it is more difficult to create than a two-winged flapping system but promises more speed and manoeuverability. Dong expects to have a prototype, about the size of a real dragon-fly, completed this year. “This small craft could perform surveillance, environmental monitoring and search and rescue,” he says.
At Harvard University roboticist Robert Wood is working on mechanical bee-like instruments to create a colony of RoboBees. These swarming robots will incorporate optical and chemical sensors as well as communications systems to make autonomous flight decisions and to coordinate with colony members during tasks such as searching for objects or people.
Robotic technology is already heavily used in all of America’s wars. As many as 4000 robots are already on the ground in Iraq. Tiny information gathering devices are complemented by robotic instruments designed to identify and disarm bombs. With ground mobility they can enter into dangerous settings where enemy soldiers are heavily armed. Some of these instruments are being adapted for or are already used for in the homeland security. Their phenomenal growth will change forever the arms race, the balance of power(s) in the world and the nature of police work.
The ethical implications of this revolution of arms, force and information gathering are daunting.
1. The development, deployment, and use of the instruments of robotic warfare are being carried out in at least 40 countries around the world. A robotic arms race is already under way. There are few if any forums that address the implications of this race for the future of life on earth and for the quality of life-like basic freedoms.
2. As the robotic arms movement unfolds, the possibility for back yard development of instruments of destruction reaches to the limits of imagination. Violent video games were just a beginning although they may have helped dull our sensitivity and create a culture of acceptance. The IED (improvised explosive device) an interim instrument for defence and attack for insurgents will have been just the first generation of a long line of sophisticated adaptation of off the shelf technology for killing. The distance between the safe researcher silently working in a sanitized laboratory and the field practitioner is narrowing. The absence of meaningful work for so many in this generation may become the void where new waves of imagination in the service of violence are unleashed. Nonviolence movements will match this challenge only with keen understanding of the implications of robotic developments and solid healthy organizations.
3. As civilian casualties grow, persons who believe that life is sacred are faced with enormous new challenges. Peacemakers and human rights workers have only begun to grasp the implications of robotic warfare. People on the ground in Pakistan told me that just 10% of the victims of Predator drone bombings are insurgent combatants. Ninety percent are civilians. The Pakistan Security Monitor, a project of the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University disputes these figures. I have travelled in Pakistan and have heard the estimated 90% figure from persons with access to the areas of impact with accompanying stories of travail and death to women and children..
For Christian pacifists the reach of research, development, and manufacture dips into every one of our communities. We are now faced with new challenges to our convictions about not killing. Unless we face those oncoming ambiguities without falling into legalism, the convictions will morph into fluffy cotton decoration over a core of words that are not backed up with action.
4. As we enter this new frontier of ethics and robotic warfare, our methods of witness for a nonviolent way will be forced to adapt. The centralization of the development and manufacture of killer instruments into fewer and fewer corporations and selected political powers is over. The time is here when ordinary people can go to the local computer store or amazon.com to order component parts for assembling a weapon. What will we do if the computer store owner even goes to our church or parish? What will we do if people in our church own stock in companies that produce the components? We won’t have to go to Washington or to some well-mannered legislative office to begin the discussion and to engage in public witness.
We are now swimming in the culture of robotics, a technology that is being adapted every day by nations around the world to myriad roles that include security and killing. We can watch in admiration or distaste as the magic is unveiled . In periods of transition and unfolding violence it takes a little time for our consciences to be awakened and the gift of stubborn resistance to become clear. The time has arrived.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, counter insurgency, drones, Pakistan, peace, Pukhtoon
The President Obama – General McCrystal surge in Afghanistan is now in full motion. Last week US Marines, NATO, and Afghan forces attacked in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan to set the stage for negotiations. The Pentagon and the White House hope that the show of force will create the conditions for the their eventual departure. Taliban resistance includes multiple improvised explosive devices (IEDs), also known as homemade roadside bombs, the weapons of choice for insurgencies today, and widely scattered landmines to inhibit foreign and Afghan government forces. By chasing down the Taliban and holding territory the US hope is that the occupying forces from abroad will weaken regional Taliban commanders and thereby force negotiations that can lead to normalization over the coming 18 months.
The multi-year strategy, the surge, attack, negotiate, withdrawal (probably with residual forces left behind) was outlined by President Obama at his West Point speech in December. This is a familiar strategy for nations when they see that a foreign occupation has become expensive, unwinnable and unpopular. Something like this was contemplated for Afghanistan by the Soviets 20 years ago, and 40 years ago by the US in Viet Nam. Both were intended to cover the negative consequences of a withdrawal where success was not achieved. In both cases the hoped for solution backfired and the imperial armies were pushed out by circumstances at home. A similar strategy is now proceeding in Iraq but we won’t know the real outcome for several years.
The process of winding down the Afghan war by means of a surge will be lubricated with generous financial incentives rumoured to be as much as 1.5 billion dollars, available for use by US commanders as encouragement to create the path for realignment. Despite Afghan President Karzai’s tenuous mandate to rule, the negotiations and leaky reconciliation effort will plod forward under his leadership. The Taliban movement is a loosely coordinated effort that does not function under unified command. Last year some Taliban leaders participated in an early attempt at conversations in Saudi Arabia. Most Taliban leaders, however, have sworn loyalty to Mullah Omar who is the closest to a human symbol of a unifying figure.
In the background veteran State Department diplomat, Richard Holbrooke who pushed through the Dayton accords precursor to the Bosnia surge, monitors progress, and provides stimulation for all the parties, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, the U N security council, NATO and other big powers. Holbrooke has estimated that 70% of the Taliban fight for local reasons or money and can be won over.
The Afghan Taliban leadership which is Pakhtoon will be weaned from their need for safe havens in Pakistan where two-thirds of the ethnic Pakhtoon population lives. American, Canadian and other officials hope that incentives like money and positions in Karzai’s Afghan government will bring Taliban commanders and their followers into Kabul’s orbit. There is plenty of precedent for incorporating Taliban-like warlords into Kabul’s government. In 2001 when the Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan fell, the US supported forces were led by the Northern Alliance one of several warlord groups that had been beaten back earlier by the Taliban. Karzai’s government has consistently included warlord leaders who still command militias from non Pakhtoon, sectors of Afghanistan. Though the non Pakhtoon peoples make up only slightly more than half of Afghanistan’s population, the Taliban now has shadow governors in thirty-three of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. However their real strength remains in the Southern provinces populated by Pakhtoon people.
In a November 2009 press release for the festival of Eid which celebrates the end of Ramadan Mullah Omar hinted at flexibility while urging fighters on with a jihad that will lead to peace. The “negotiations” last year between the Afghan government (by implications the US and NATO) and the Taliban may or may not have started to move things toward a longer term negotiating process. Renunciation of Al-Qaeda is probably Washington’s one non-negotiable demand despite the fact that U. S strategists believe Al-Qaeda’s strategic importance still centred in Pakistan is much diminished. The principal demand of the Taliban is that foreign forces must announce a timetable to leave Afghanistan. President Obama hinted at a 18-month timetable in his West Point address.
In December 2009 President Karzai called for a Laya Jirga to which the Taliban would be invited as a way to bring the insurgency to an end. A Laya Jirga or grand council in the Pakhtoon tradition has been used among the tribes to settle disputes going back to ancient times and is rooted in Pashtunwali, the code of ethics of the Pakhtoon people. Karzai is said to have insisted that Mullah Omar be invited to participate. The response of the international community, the language used by Karzai to refer to the Americans, was caution. In addition to demanding assurances that the Afghan Taliban have revoke any relationship with Al-Queda the international community urged that Karzai demand that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution. This points to the debate about the role of Sharia law in a future Afghanistan. Karzai has also called for an end night raids and that all prisoners be turned over to the Afghan government. He has continued his criticisms of the use of bombing raids by international forces that lead to massive death for civilians. In Helmand province, the site of the current U. S. and allied offensive up to ten civilians were killed in a Hellfire missile attack by a drone last week.
Even if the outlines of this precarious plan are successfully stitched together, it holds little promise of ending the work of the dragon, 9/11, whose fangs ignited this era of international terror, revenge and invasion. The end game leaves Afghanistan desperately poor and probably alone when the international community heads home as it will. The U. S. will finally have to attend to paying the sky-rocketing debt for its military adventures.
Surge, attack, negotiations have a ring of familiarity. Not all of us are confident that it will bring peace. What if the Taliban refuses to abandon their covenant with Al-Qaeda? What if Pakistan decides that an Afghanistan of warlords including Taliban warlords no longer tethered to Pakistan is too dangerous because India, its primary adversary, may exploit the situation?
What if the momentum of distrust and corruption can’t be stopped and the scaffolding for negotiations never develops? What if the better angels in Afghan culture and village life cannot be called forth to rescue everyone from the 30 year habits of violence? What if the external forces often called stakeholders, Pakistan, India, Iran, China, the neighbours to the North of Afghanistan, and the big powers including the US, NATO and Russia, all with interests in Afghanistan will not agree? What if violence, anarchy and warlords resurface with a vengeance as they did when the Soviets departed in the early 1990s? Will Afghanistan be turned back again to the warlords to compete for the spoils and grind the people down even more?
Stay tuned to this blog site as we explore some other approaches to Afghanistan and the region.
A year ago we heard a lot about the audacity of hope. I believe in it. The problem is that the only people who can really practice it seems to be folks at the grass roots. In the middle of a tough winter is a good time to make an assessment of what we can do with our hope. Read on! This is not going to be a call to do more. Nor is it a plea for unrelenting stubborn insistence that the world would be so much better if it was more like I want it to be.
Living in the audacity of hope from inside the White House may be almost impossible. For the rest of us we can still work to vibrate some of the rafters built into the White House by slaves.
A year after the audacity of hope moved into the White House we are deeper in debt and the rhythm of remembrances to fallen soldiers marches on into the ninth year. Feeling stuck in a period of history is not a new thing. The project of abolition of slavery took many generations and it is still going on. Things looked bad maybe permanently beyond repair in the 10-year depression of the 1930s. At one point in 1971 I concluded that the Viet Nam war would just go on and on and on, that our work maybe would mean nothing. By then it had gone on for eight years or 26 years depending upon your viewing platform, Vietnamese or the rest of the world that got its news from New York.
In times like these the subterranean flow of revision, reevaluation, resignation and re commitment continues. Along the way there are surprises of inward inspiration. Here are a few ideas that have kept me going although if you would have asked me forty years ago if I believed in these principles I wouldn’t have recognized them.
1. I have learned to put my body in places where people are upset because something has gone wrong. That is the geography where I find the energy and imagination to do something about a problem. I need to see the contradictions with my own eyes, listen to what people say, and smell the atmosphere. Recently I spent a week in West Virginia with people who are trying to save their mountains from mountain top mining. Now I have a framework to support them.
Last year I realized that we were going to hear a lot about Afghanistan and Pakistan so I made a trip to Pakistan. I knew things were complicated before I went and going there only made the South Asia confluence of religion, politics and change seem more complicated. As a minimum I now know how to read the news about Pakistan more critically. And when it comes to Afghanistan I continue to be shocked with the placid reporting of embedded reporters but I know how dangerous and difficult it is to get underneath to the place where local listening can happen. I expect to continue to revisit both countries in my imagination if not also in reality. Something isn’t working and the images fester in my soul crying for testimony to truth. This year I know I need to place myself with radicalized Muslims, yes the kind that body bomb, to understand a little more deeply how they think.
In my community in Northwestern Ontario native people are in the midst of renewing their life and governance and are the only people who have a permanent commitment to the area. But, their moral and legal rights are under a constant threat. The other players in the district, outfitters who cater to tourists hunters or fishermen, and persons working in or supporting the extractive industries of mining and timber.
2. Most of us who read blogs are not full time activists. So we have to make decisions about priorities. Making a choice now of what I can do this year is a gift. Trying to do too many things leads to frustration. In our Chicago Synapses office a professor came in once a week for a couple hours to update the data base. I worried that this work was terribly mundane, even insulting to this professor of a prominent university. “Oh,” he said, “this gives me inspiration for literature that I study. I think of the places where all these people come from and unknown to me the drama that is unfolding before them. And then I say a little prayer for them and move onto the next entry.”
When I lived in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I never had very much money but usually just enough. I was tempted to take a well paying half time job and then carry out my activist calling in the left over time. Whenever I tried it, my brain became confused over conflicting priorities and demands. I didn’t do either job well and felt tired. So I slimmed down my financial requirements so that I could get back to doing what those faces in Viet Nam expected me to do, end the war.
3. A working group is more than an endless collection of disembodied issues and meetings. When I decide to work with a group I want to know if there is good energy. Do people support each other, freely share their ideas and listen to each other. I want to know what the framework for decision making is. Is there hidden but powerful matrix of power that shows up as a blocker when things need to get moving? Do people where I want to volunteer occasionally eat together, laugh together, like each other. Are there cliques, or an atmosphere of, “I have to do this.”
4. I also want to know if the group spends an inordinate amount of time fulfilling funder’s demands? When this happens, I know that there is either a funder with an overburdened ego need or, more likely, a worker who is using the funder to escape the common vision of the group. I want to know that the group does not subordinate its vision to a single set of big funders whose disappearance will be the signal for the demise of the noble goal and vision. I really prefer to work with groups who have lots of individuals who give financial support and see big gifts from foundations as special blessings that can be used for a next step.
5. When I volunteer I know that I am looking for something that I may not even be conscious of. It may be that I am hoping to find a place to really work on Pakistan, Afghanistan, native rights or whatever. I probably won’t just come out and say it but I am also looking for connections to other people. I want to learn something fresh, maybe make a good friend. Volunteering is a good way to look for a job. I don’t want to be a burden or bring heaviness to an already overworked staff. But I need to believe I am contributing something even something tiny but worthwhile to the whole.
When I was on the staff side of this continuum I also wanted to make the perfect match between volunteer and the work that they could do. I rarely felt that the matches I made were perfect. I tried to thank people for what they did. What surprised me were the fresh ideas, gifts and joy that volunteers brought to the table of social change effort when they were given something clear that they could do. A lot of things worked out better than I expected them to. I have learned that the audacity of hope is really completed in the courage to continue to engage where I can.
Filed under: Nonviolence | Tags: community, leadership, listening to the people, recession
Everywhere I travel grassroots organizations have felt the impact of recession and are worried about their financial future. There is no formula for grass roots organization that will assure an organization’s future or make for growth. Big foundations will continue to fund big organizations and educational bodies who write slick proposals, and governments will continue to support their favourite generally uncritical groups.
Everybody including grass roots change groups face financial challenges just like businesses. Under our economic system if there are profits they are reserved as much as possible for the people at the top. This year Wall Street executives and traders will get bonuses worth 25 billion dollars. Meantime most of us at the bottom already live at subsistence level and took a cut last year. No one else will find a way for us through this financial crisis. Our natural partners overseas, peace groups, community groups, environmental groups are feeling the pinch of less money and hurt even more than we are.
Some of our organization will recover and some will not and as they pass let us celebrate and honour the good work that they have done. Fresh initiatives being born as you read will take their place. Those that recover likely enjoy exceptional leadership and a diverse population of committed participants and supporters who don’t resort to backbiting, gossip or blaming in hard times.
Here are 5 ways to think about thriving in difficult times.
1. A diverse funding base that relies heavily on individuals or community groups, religious bodies is always better than a single source.
I was once a member of an organization that received almost all its support from a single government source. It had done excellent work in grass roots international development even speaking out against U. S government policies during the Viet Nam war. I sat in board meeting after board meeting as we wrung our hands in search of grass roots fund raising models. In the 1990s even the limited government support faded and the organization closed. Nothing worked well enough and the organization had to terminate projects. If early on we had worked for more diversified and community based support I believe we could have continued some very innovative work.
2. In recovery always think about outreach and enlargement of the circle rather than hunkering down and retreating into a mind set of scarcity.
I briefly worked with one organization that had to cut expenditures during an income drop. The process accentuated long held grievances, including sexism, racism, and accusations of hidden favouritism arising from religious convictions. The working atmosphere was barely tolerable. All the organizational consultants in the world could have been only marginally helpful. The experience reminded me of how much work we have to do to enlarge our circles of trust long before the fury of financial crisis explodes. Even without the residue of long held grievances and unfairness there is always a collective psychic cost to lay offs. I know of one group who avoided depleting their collective energy last year during cut backs by agreeing to organization wide pay cuts of 10%.
3. As the crisis of survival unfolds it is tempting to forget the vision that drew the energy of people together. Someone will probably encourage the organization to go on a new vision quest forgetting that a vision quest is usually done by individuals, especially native warriors as they set out early in life. Instead this is the time for a revision quest, a moment to clarify the vision’s pillar that keeps it going financially. If the group has developed a body of individuals who have given financial support over the years, many or all of them may need to be personally visited or phoned to get an honest assessment of what might be possible. In cases where support was limited to one or a few big funders the personal visits are imperative but the problem of funding may be terminal.
4. There are three components of any solid grass roots endeavour, good committed people, a clear explainable program, and money to support it. People who give money out of a sense of wanting to be part of a healthy mission want to know that even in times of crisis, the strategy for coordinating these three pillars are in harmony and attended to. They don’t have to be told that these are hard times. They might like to know that their hopes, thoughts and commitments do count.
5. Even in the most desperate situations there are moments of surprise when unexpectedly good things happen. People who do social justice work with the tools of nonviolence know this but easily forget. It can help to know that the major adjustments that we must face from time to time in organizational work can be grounded in spiritual energy and kindness. The breath of God and the light of the Spirit creates the surprises of unity that otherwise may not be expected.
This is the time to remember that an enduring characteristic of our work is the element of surprise. This is different from magic which is the science of entertainment with manipulation. Surprise and joy lubricated with humour comes in hard times. If you don’t believe me go visit the folks fighting mountain top removal in West Virginia, or to Pakistan where people are overcoming violence in the context of so much craziness, or to the Nevada desert where people are standing against nuclear bombs and drones. In the end the rewards are bigger than our survival. It includes laughing at our mistakes, celebrating an occasional breakthrough, and enjoying a good meal together. By itself the best economy will not buy any of these things. We can create the context for them to happen. That’s where the fun starts.
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking | Tags: mountain top mining, Nonviolence
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
When the stars begin to fall.
You’ll hear the trumpet sound
To wake the nations underground,
Looking to my God’s right hand,
When the stars begin to fall.
– The Books of American Negro Spirituals, published in 1925-26 by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson
I slowed down for the curves and watched for signs to Hawk’s Nest Park as I approached Ansted. The State Park was established near Gauley Mountain on the New River where local people told me between 470 and 700 mostly African American miners died while working for Union Carbide from 1927 to 1933. The workers contracted silicosis in the mines while tunnelling through a mountain to build a hydro electric plant, one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the Americas.
As I approached the mountain top on Highway 60 in my Ford Ranger I found myself humming the old Negro spiritual that I sang as a child, “My Lord, What a Mourning when the stars begin to fall” except in my version mourning had become morning. It was dark as I approached Ansted. The mountains were only remote shadows as snow began to fall. In the version of the song of long forgotten slaves I hum the lines that had been morphed as they travelled voice to ear over the decades..
“We’ll cry for rocks and rocks and mountains when the stars begin to fall,
Rocks and mountains they’ll not save you when the stars begin to fall.”
I searched for an hour along unlit one lane roads for Allen Johnson who would host me at a Christians for the Mountains facility. Modest homes that once housed mine workers were plentiful. As I searched for the guest house I listened to public radio for reports on the Copenhagen meeting. Finally, I gave up searching turned off the radio and called Allen. He met me at the Ansted Pharmacy and led me to the rented guest house beside a century old Baptist church. The old spiritual was still echoing from my unconscious.
As I approached my lodging I could see the outline of Gauley Mountain in the distance and Allen told me that just over the edge I would see mountain top coal removal but that would have to await the daylight. Allen had warned me that 500 mountain tops have been dynamited layer by layer in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee – Appalachia – to reach the seams of coal. The coal is carried by train, barge and truck to power plants to generate electricity and to factories where steel is fashioned.
Rocks from the blasting have buried a thousand miles of streams and destroyed 12 percent of West Virginia forests forever. The Appalachian mountains that once reached heights equalling the great Himalayas of South Asia rose 300 million years ago when coal was formed from trees, swamps and other vegetation. Part of the energy for the light that illuminates my screen as I write may come from this coal.
The price for coal is rising. Surface mining permits the only efficient access to thin seams of coal formed 50 million years before dinosaurs, that traditional underground mining can not reach. With the use of large machinery and explosives two and a half times as much coal per worker can be extracted as in underground mines.
My own life has a connection to Appalachia coal. Sixty years ago when my Northeast Ohio family used coal for heating, 125,000 people worked in the mines. Today that number has fallen to 15,000 because of mechanization. Already then, Appalachian miners with their children fled homes due to joblessness, health problems and poverty. Their special accent was a matter of curiosity in my second and third grade class. Later when I lived in Chicago the north side Uptown neighbourhood was populated by people seeking refuge from the coal fields, many suffering from black lung disease. Today Ansted is more than 60% retired people. Few residents now work in the coal mines. However, coal dust, sounds of dynamite, coal trucks, and plans for more mountain levelling threaten the town’s new vision, to transform itself into a tourist center.
On the day after I arrived people were loath to travel the mountain roads due to snow so I stopped by the Redeemer Episcopal Church. I cautiously entered the annex of the 120 year old church where ladies were holding a fund raiser. My caution was formed by a belief that an Episcopal Church like this one would have been founded to serve the owners of the mines. No sooner did I park myself in front of one of the woman’s cookie tables than I was asked, “Are you here to work to stop Mountain Top Removal?” in a tone that definitely suggested that I would be much more welcome if I would answer, “Yes”.
I asked the women selling cookies for more information about the mountains. Over hot cider and cookies a woman from the kitchen informed me that their church goes out to the mountains regularly where their priest leads participants from surrounding churches in BLESSINGS for the mountains. She inferred that these events were not popular with the coal companies. “I hope you are here the next time we do a Blessing.” said another woman.
Allen took me to visit his friend Larry Gibson at Keyford mountain twenty miles west of Ansted as the crow flies. “Thanks for finally coming to see me” said Larry who met Allen and me with a big hug and a hot cup of coffee. The use of the word “finally” in his jovial greeting was unmistakably firm. I knew it was meant for me. “We need your support.”
Larry’s family line traces its roots in Keyford mountain back 200 years and the evidence lies silently in the nearby cemeteries at least the graves that have not yet been dynamited away. Along the winding road to his mountain top memorial hide way I see the remains of another mountain that has been blasted away, a valley blocked with land fill, huge coal trucks and shards of chimneys from long burned out homes that once housed 10,000 people who lived off mining. Larry cares for the pristine property of his ancestors as a sign of resistance to dynamite, and power shovels. Five times a year on key holidays he invites hundreds of people to festivals like of celebration and remembrance of Keyford mountain.
But not all of Larry’s guests are friendly. Drunken thugs show up to frighten visitors away much like company hired goons once tried to break union organizing in the coal fields. He describes 15 years of struggle, the offers of millions to buy him out, intimidation, arrests and speaking tours before leading us out over his 59 acre mountain top spread, a living trophy to persistence and survival. We pass several cabins where distant relatives come for retreat. He points to bullet holes, a long closed store and finally we pass Hell’s Gate, the property boundary beyond which we begin to view the empty disappeared mountain top beyond.
Below I can see layers of coal and massive power shovels loading coal trucks for delivery to a processing site and later shipment for power generation. In another direction bulldozers slice off rock that has been loosened with blasts of dynamite for disposal in the valley below. A hardy but bland grass has been planted on the mountainside next to his property where mining was terminated. There are no trees, shrubs, mice or deer, just grass. I see the town of Dorothy in a hazy valley beyond, named a century ago in honour of the wife of a mining company owner.
Visiting with Larry Gibson was good preparation for the rally at West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, called to stop mountain top removal at still another site, Coal River Mountain. The Monday, December 7 protest brought together hundreds from West Virginia and neighbouring states. Everyone gathered in front of the West Virginia state Environmental Protection Agency which has rubber stamped so many company mining initiatives. Cordoned off about 100 feet behind the rally and adjacent to the agency building were 150 counter protesters, some hired by mining companies from the village of Dorothy. Greeting many of the speakers as they rose to challenge the crowd were blood curdling blasts from the horns of coal trucks programmed by the coal industry to cruise just a block away but loud enough to be heard maybe as far away as Copenhagen,. Rally speakers creatively co-opted the horns with long chants that transformed their irritating noise barrage into future friends, “Hoooooonk if you love the mountains.”
As I departed a voice inside told me to go to wake the nations. The descendants of coal miners who live in the hollows and valleys believe that Appalachia can be saved. The industry claims that rallies like the one in Charleston are the result of outsider manipulation by tree huggers. In spite of the charges I found an expanding conviction in West Virginia that the dust of coal pollution and lakes of slime, artificial polluted reservoirs created from crushing and cleaning coal, will be stopped. When people work together to change things they create a culture for transformation.
Several days later as I pulled out of Ansted I flipped on the radio to check developments in Copenhagen. The sombre reports of disunity among the nations reminded me to be realistic but thankful for the people, some diplomats, demonstrators and lobbyists who by their actions remembered the coal fields and disappearing mountain tops. The snow had ended and the fog had lifted. I could see the mountains and knew there was hard work ahead beyond the mourning or was it morning. It’s a new year. It’s a new decade.