Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Iraq, Peacemaker spirit, Taliban, Viet Nam | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, conscience, drones, pacifism, peace, robotic warfare
What is the meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize? Alfred Nobel, Stockholm native and the inventor of dynamite and other explosives was chagrined that his inventions were used in cruel ways. In the late 1800s towards end of his life he dedicated his considerable fortune to those who had made the greatest contribution to humankind. Each year prizes are awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace.
Two sitting American Presidents Woodrow Wilson (1919) and ninety years later Barack Obama (2009) have been presented the Nobel peace prize. Both men believed that they had an overarching role to move history in a more peaceful direction. Wilson was disappointed and died in office. His League of Nations was crippled from non support at home and then burned in the ashes of World War II. We hope for a better outcome for Obama. Former President Jimmy Carter received the prize in 2002, 22 years after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan for a second term. Henry Kissinger accepted the peace prize for negotiating with the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (North Viet Nam) in the early 1970s while B52s simultaneous bombed his enemy. His counterpart Le Duc Tho of North Viet Nam refused to accept the prize. The war continued for two more years after the Paris Peace agreements. Between 1973-1975, another half a million Vietnamese were killed and wounded, 340,000 of them civilians.
President Obama’s eloquent speech accepting the Nobel Prize on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day laid out the necessity of war and ruminated on his nation’s understanding of just war – “war waged as a last resort, or in self-defence; if the force used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” To his credit he defined what theorists believe is a just war. He did not identify how his administration purports to fine tune war making to meet the criteria of a just war in two big wars, Iraq, according to him a dumb war and Afghanistan, a necessary conflict.
How will those who target drone attacks, and other expressions of air war make certain that no civilians are killed? How will a new chapter in just war be written in the basic training manuals of soldiers preparing for deployment, for interrogation of the enemy, for treatment of captives, and for clean up of military waste? Can Alfred Nobel’s dynamite and its prolific offspring ever be controlled? Will the apparent unlimited use of U S wealth for military purposes bankrupt its citizens as once happened in Rome?
For a century the Nobel Prize for peace has hovered in that space between active peacemaking represented by monumental efforts towards peace and justice like land mine eradication, civil rights, or relief efforts, and the work of nations to create a framework that will constrict war and its effects on civil society. The prize was not primarily intended to celebrate pacifist solutions to war although people who questioned all war and violence like Martin Luther King and Jane Addams received the award. The acknowledgement of their achievements gives hope.
In his speech President Obama deftly distanced himself and his office from pacifist traditions as a President with responsibilities consistent with empire must do. To his credit he did so without the normal checklist of charges of idealism, lack of realism and or even naiveté, a checklist deeply embedded in the pillars of liberal democratic thinking upon whose shoulders his politic relies for ideological ballast.
President Obama didn’t tell us if there are any serious negotiations with adversaries, coalitions of Pakhtoon villages or Taliban groups. In a part of the world where negotiations have been practised for 3000 years it is hard to believe that something isn’t happening to find an end to armed conflict. How is the conduct of the Afghan-Pakistan war creating the context for real peace, democracy or development? The people I talked to in Pakistan are not sure. How will his administration encourage or even mandate the military chaplain corps to become a genuine conscience and moral compass for “just combat” in the field. What about the thousands of soldiers who joined the nation’s forces and, in the process of soldiering, developed a conscientious objection to war? Will they be allowed to get out without having their dignity and personal integrity dishonoured?
For many peace people, church members and third world nations Obama’s speeches on Afghanistan and the acceptance of the Nobel prize despite their eloquence was a time of disappointment. This was the moment when I realized that my long-term hope for ending the practice of war in say a century will require harder more focussed work than ever. I believe I can use this experience as a time to bound forward. The speeches remind me that the Lamb of God with even wider reach in the stretch for justice can overcome the god of empire that imposes chaos and destruction under the guise of democratic order.
The speeches remind us that fundamentalist preachers or pundits are tethered together with the liberal establishment on the question of war. Both stumble through various versions of just war ethics as the Predator drones drag us into a scary future. Above all the speeches remind us of the very limited options that are available to an imperial President in matters of peace and war. This is the moment to pull up our pants, turn off the T V, awaken our imaginations, and listen to God’s spirit of compassion for all human kind, and get on with our work.
Some of us will be called to unexpected sacrifice of time, career, and life itself. The goal of a world without war is worth all of the sacrifice of a great army of unarmed soldiers. This dream of a nonviolent world may be the only realistic vision now, despite the fact that our leaders doff their hats to just war. The renewal of our spirit will come one step at a time in fresh and even larger ways as our spirits are awakened to the politics of renewal and hope, a politic like Jesus himself, that is never dependent upon a president who himself is often powerless to transform an imperial culture that devours good policies and strong words.
The universality of this season’s mantra, “Peace on Earth Good Will Towards People” is a good place to start and it gets the best angels involved. If the mantra is going to bring down the institution of war we better be prepared with discipline and armfuls of imagination infused with love. When we are called idealists we do well to give the realist answer, all of creation is groaning for something better. That is where we will put our energy. Even elder Alfred Nobel might cheer us on.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, corruption, counter insurgency, military contractors
Corruption is in the news again always with tough talk about what the next phase of US troops in Afghanistan will look like. As a young volunteer in Viet Nam in the early 1960s I was assigned to work with a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) sponsored program called hamlet education. At the time I thought that education was always good and it never occurred to me that I might be part of a larger plan to entice the Vietnamese government to embrace the U. S. Government agenda. As I got into my work I was warned of corruption. American government advisors told me that money for the program was lifted all along the way from Saigon ministry people, through province leaders and on down to district governments that administered the disbursement of money. I was never told what to do about it. I had not enrolled in a class that might have been called History of Corruption in the Western World although given the soiled history of US intervention in so many places over the last 40 years it should have been a required course.
At the local level where I worked, the district chiefs contracted to have the schools built. Vietnamese and Americans warned me that the contractors would cut corners by using insufficient amounts of cement and lower quality construction materials. According to these same people contractors were required to kick back a certain percentage to the district chief. It took forever for the paperwork and the money to work its way through the system down to the hamlets. So American advisors along the way were encouraged to pressure, nice talk, and occasionally throw a fit to get hamlet education and all the other counter insurgency programs moving. Eventually I figured out that I was the final link in that pressure process.
District chiefs told me that the blame for the slow pace of implementation order was due to the Viet Cong, or the general slowness of the Vietnamese way. Eventually schools were built, dedicated and opened. There were plenty of children. Occasionally when I visited schools there was propaganda on the school walls condemning American imperialists. I learned that when those signs appeared the schools usually closed shortly thereafter and if I went to those villages people continued to be polite and there was still tea to drink but the villagers didn’t want to talk about the school.
As the military build up proceeded I noticed that the US military civic action people took great interest in schools, loved to paint schools, and give support to projects. Like me they also believed that schools would bring a better future As security broke down such projects lost their luster. But many of the programs continued to be carried on the Saigon government books and something called corruption grew as the distance from money to effective implementation became more remote, often impossible, due to war. This led to more accusations of corruption and an influx of more American advisors always with their generous hardship pay. Like me they arrived generally underqualified in the local arts of communication, culture and corruption. Back in the White House situation room war councils were a weekly affair.
President Obama has promised to announce his Afghanistan decision next week in time for Christmas. West Point, his choice of location does not suggest to me that he or his advisors have learned what I thought I learned in Viet Nam about how war and corruption embrace each other usually with the language of economic improvement and development for the people. I can hear the generals and other senior advisors now in the situation room fine tune the use of new miracle weapons and at the same time integrating Canada, NATO and whoever else into the strategy of targeting the foe. And then some highly medaled general or civilian security advisor will ask about how the counter insurgency plans are coming along. Somebody pontificates about “the people” and someone else describes a conversation they had in Afghanistan recently. Maybe there is a silence in the room and then someone from USAID, the civilian counter insurgency agency, reports on how many new people have been sent in to advise and track roads, schools and other development work. Overall the mood is sombre and no one wants to say the strategy won’t work. Someone asks about negotiations. But that discussion doesn’t seem to go anywhere either. One of the elephants in the room reminds the solemn gathering how embarrassing it is to give money to a government that is corrupt so someone suggests that we have to get the press to cover a success story.
Corruption usually gets worse in war because people’s survival instinct tell them to think short term and clutch at every opportunity for golden nuggets, money, or anything that has value and can be traded. I doubt that the $500 dollar per day civilian advisors will stamp out survival corruption. I have not heard evidence that these pricy civilians are any more prepared with communication, culture and corruption medicine than I was 45 years ago. An Afghan’s monthly salary is less than half the amount a U. S. aid worker earns each day. It costs about $500,000 per year to put these pricy civilian advisors and corruption doctors in the field, including the cost of their housing, transport, and security (usually provided by even higher paid contractors). A soldier costs the American people about one million dollars per year.
But the suspension of legal and moral strictures so evident in conditions of war has its first cousins in New York and Washington where there isn’t a war. We don’t use the word corruption unless it’s a Ponzi scheme. By keeping the boundaries of the law as wide as possible in order to encourage free enterprise our rule of law here is respected even though people, corporations and syndicates plunder one another and feed on those who are not organized to escape the insatiable grasp for more money. It is this kind of condition that incensed the Old Testament prophets when they warned Israel about the fate that awaits the greedy nation. Corruption doctors are needed right here in North America, not the $500 a day kind that are sent to Afghanistan but the kind who have demonstrated with a life of bold words, or prudent action that the future is worth protecting. Preachers and modern day prophets whose thought and wisdom have tasted from the well of sustainable economy can help. Listeners and readers should, however, beware of the false gospel of perpetual prosperity celebrated in so many religious and economic holy places like some mega churches and Wall Street.
In Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan the word corruption is used when sharply dressed foreign advisors, who should know better, need someone to blame. Let’s face it, corruption is universal. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, roman senator, and historian who prosecuted a proconsul of Africa on corruption in the first century said “The more corrupt the state, the more laws.” We still have a habit of passing more laws to build a moat around corruption and deal with lapses in moral judgement.
The terms of the debate on Afghanistan are in need of change from corruption and blaming to respect and honest talk. Foreign power and might will not change the outcome in Afghanistan although generous doses of explosives from outside will certainly lengthen the war. The challenge of American powerlessness in Afghanistan now faces President Obama and his advisors. If he reaches back to his time as a community organizer he will get some hints of how to address the nation and the world when faced with powerlessness. Community organizers don’t take on campaigns that are not good for the community. A healthy campaign reaches out with the possibility of real gain for all the participants
Foreign fighters in Afghanistan from the Muslim or the Christian world can ill afford to pay for this war. This chapter of warfare can be closed by loading up the trains, trucks, and air planes with all existing and spent war equipment. By bringing instruments of war past and present, mines, spent tanks, everything, home for recycling it will not be used by anyone in Afghanistan or elsewhere to extend anyone’s conflict. Then the world can turn its attention to binding up the wounds from broken relationships, the tangle of terrorism, and building a world that is incorruptible.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Islam | Tags: blasphemy, peace
This past week seven Christians were burnt alive in the Gojra District of Punjab the most populated province in Pakistan. The rioters alleged that the Koran had been defiled by Christians. That is blasphemy. The Punjab government, now ruled by the Muslim League and home to several militant Islamic groups, delayed the launching of an investigation. A day earlier 70 homes of Christians were burned. Gojra is a city of 150,000 and headquarters of the Anglican Church of Pakistan.
As a child I was aware of Christian teachings in Luke 12:10 where blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is described as unforgivable. Like many other children I worried that I might have said something, done something or carried an attitude that might doom me forever. Finally I summoned the courage to ask a Sunday school teacher what the verse meant and was told that I should not worry about it. I took some comfort but continued to worry secretly about some of my bad words and thoughts.
My comfort level did not increase when I read, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain”. (Exodus 20:7 KJV) And still more frightening for me was the phrase from Leviticus 4:16 where I read that blasphemy is a capital crime and that those who speak blasphemy “shall surely be put to death”. To be honest I wasn’t sure what the word blasphemy meant. Maybe my teachers didn’t know either.
In Islam, strict blasphemy is any act of speaking ill of the Prophet Mohammed or any other prophet identified in the Koran, saying that Jesus Christ is the son of God, or speaking disrespectfully of the one God. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights calls for everyone to enjoy freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In 1948 when this was adopted most nations did not feel a need to protect God, religious leaders, or activists from blasphemy. Today militant religious movements – minority though they may be – have reinvented more primitive and literal applications of teachings regarding blasphemy.
In Pakistan the current blasphemy laws, the strictest in the Muslim world, provide penalties including death or fines for persons. Professional people, Muslims and non Muslims, have been subjects of prosecution, vigilantism or riots. Americans deserve to be reminded – perhaps some of us never knew – that these severe measures, Articles 295 B and C were put in place during a period of constitutional reform instituted under General Ziaul Haq who came to power through a military coup. General Ziaul Haq, perhaps the most conservative Muslim ever to rule Pakistan enjoyed a warm relationship with the government of Ronald Reagan. Their two militaries and intelligence services cooperated intensively in the fight to chase the Soviets from Afghanistan. This was also the period when the groundwork was laid for the Taliban movement.
Until General Haq’s period in the 1980s Pakistan included people from minority religions in its senior leadership. This pattern has returned only recently. In 2007 a Hindu was appointed Chief Justice of Pakistan and last year a Christian was appointed to the High Court.
In a show of strength by the local Gojra Christian community, the families refused to bury the coffins immediately but instead placed them on the city’s railroad track to block trains. Their courageous act was a protest against the police who had not taken steps to initiate an investigation. Sitting with the Christians beside the coffins in his black suit was Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.
Another bold move was organized by Civil Junction, an Islamabad based safe gathering place and coffee shop which provided valued support for my recent trip to Pakistan. On August 4th they held a candle vigil for the victims of Gojra as a first step towards condemning the act and the laws which instigate and endorse such acts. The event was telecast live on Pakistani TV, and running coverage went out over radio. Bigger events are being organized.
After the Gojra killings there was a strong popular and federal government burst of condemnation. The Roman Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace called the incident shocking and said, “There seems to be a growing consensus that society at large must fight this abuse of religion.” Muslim groups also spoke out.
These acts of public protest show that Christians and Muslims are working together in a campaign to put an end to blasphemy laws instituted in the mid 1980s. They also push for firm government prosecution when mob acts and terror is directed against any minority religion. About 5% of Pakistan’s 170 million people is made up of minority Sikhs, Buddhist, Hindus, Christians and others. The Ahmadiyya, a minority Muslim group that believes that the Messiah or Muslim Mahdi returned symbolically in the form of its 18th century founder, are considered heretical by some Muslims and they are often treated with prejudice like those from non Muslim faiths.
The attack on Christians was probably carried out by one of many non Taliban militant groups in Pakistan. Christians who are often from the less fortunate classes are frequently charged by militant groups to have ties with Americans although I found little evidence for that when I travelled in Pakistan. The strong public condemnation and expressions of compassion from the broad Pakistani population is a reminder for all of us that like the US people’s response to the bombing in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995 there is a strong and decent center to Pakistani society.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Digital/Star War, War and Poverty | Tags: counter insurgency, drones, Human Terrain Teams, Pukhtoon, revenge, Swat Valley
“A Pukhtoon never forsakes revenge.”
“A stone of Pukhtoon (enmity) does not rot in water.”
“A Pukhtoon enmity is like fire of a dunghill.”
“May Allah spare you a Pukhtoon’s Anger.”
“If a Pukhtoon takes his revenge after a hundred years, it is still too soon.”
– Proverbs of the Afghan and Pakistani Pukhtoon people
“The Pukhtoon loves fighting but hates to be a soldier; loves music but has a great contempt for the musician; is kind and gentle but hates to show it; loves his new rifle and his old wife; is hot-blooded and hot-headed; is poor and proud with strange principles; might be a loving friend or a deadly enemy; in general, he is very simple but very complicated in his simplicity.”
Ghani Khan: Pukhtoon poet and philosopher
* * *
The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan could drag on for 10, 20 or more years. Viewed from the stance of many Pukhtoon villagers these wars have already lasted almost 30 years since the arrival of Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Eventually the wars will end because outside forces including NATO, the US, and national armies of Afghanistan and Pakistan that are viewed as trouble makers or hostile interlopers will go away due to exhaustion. The wars may also end because of negotiations with villages, or some of the 60 tribes which are groups of villages that share specific customs, and in some cases larger coalitions. Negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban forces are happening at undisclosed locations in the Gulf States. The Pakistan military has a long history of communication and even support for the Taliban. These larger relationships and negotiations will not obviate the need for additional talks with traditional leaders that can lead to peace.
According to Ali Gohar, a child of Pukhtoon culture and respected leader in Pukhtoon communities of Northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, any negotiations must be conditioned by customary law. He summarizes this in a recent monograph, “hospitality is one of the finest virtues, revenge a sacred duty and bravery an essential pre-requisite for an honorable life… These attributes also form the basis of the Pukhtoon code of honor and anyone who repudiates them is looked down upon by the society.” For the Pukhtoon peace is sustained by following norms, values and customary law.
Without authentic action of making things right by the perpetrator of a crime, badal (revenge) is a duty of a Pukhtoon tribesmen. The crime may come from those who invade and those who bomb with drones or air planes. The obligation of Badal rests with the aggrieved party and it can be discharged only by action against the aggressor, writes Gohar. If there is no means of revenge it may be deferred for years, but it is disgraceful to abandon it entirely. The whole tribe may be called upon to assist in retaliation.
In the Pukhtoon culture shame is for the victims. It can be equalized and therefore cancelled through revenge. Even though there is a strong religious belief that God will punish the wrongdoer here and in the hereafter, people still believe that revenge is their duty. A victim of kidnaping, rape or murder carries with her or him the shame of this crime done to them. This shame will persist for their whole life until and unless it is equalized by revenge. Shame is not just a matter for the individual. Shame is carried by the family and tribe of the victims for generations Only when traditional elders working through the council (jirga) of the community intervene with traditional law can the cycle of shame be broken without retribution.
There is no Pukhtoon word for “sorry”. If a person does something wrong, both the offender and the victim will suffer for generations until and unless it is equalized by applying the principal “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” By way of jirga intervention one may beg for forgiveness (nanawathay). Compromise through arbitration is also practiced when both parties agree to engage in a process.
In tribes and villages it is common for adult males to own a weapon. If a visitor comes to a village the males will line up and shoot their weapons as a sign of welcome. However, these weapons are also available in a time of need to form a police force in order to apply local customary law or as a militia when enemies from the outside appear.
This very sketchy smattering of Pukhtoon customs are at best a taste of what foreign armies, journalists and sincere helpers face in the present Afghanistan and Pakistani wars. An already complex social inheritance is made even more complicated by the introduction of various outside Muslim and non Muslim forces and home grown warlords now referred to as Taliban groups. In general however, any resolution will have to incorporate the deeply held values identified above and others if there is to be lasting peace.
I asked persons who live in the midst of Pukhtoon tribal society if there is any way that these tribal customs can become a resource for peace rather than a source of confusion and conflict. Their answer was an unqualified, “Yes”. “But” said one informer with deep roots in the region, “you can not send people from the military you must send civilians. We will not trust the military who send Hellfire missiles and bombs and soldiers.”
When I asked my informers if it would be safe for someone to come and talk they replied, “We honor our guests with our lives. They will be welcomed by a row of local people who shoot their weapons into the air as a sign of hospitality. We will guard you with our lives. Richard Holbrook would be welcomed tomorrow. Our most basic need right now is peace.”
“And who would Richard Holbrook or his Afghan or Pakistani counterpart talk to?” I asked. “A garget (community of elders) would be assembled in the tribe, the village, or region and we would start talking. It can happen.”
Revenge is a deep part of Pukhtoon life. But revenge for the coming decades is not inevitable. Every missile and every attack increases the deep margins of revenge in the Pukhtoon soul. Another proverb points the way in hope, “Where there is love a Pukhtoon will accompany you to hell but where there is force he will not even go to heaven with you.”
For information on how to access this new monograph Who learns from whom? Pukhtoon Traditions in Modern Perspective by Ali Gohar go to www.justpeaceint.org. It should be available shortly.
Note: In former posting I used the spelling Pashtoon. There are a variety of terms and spellings used to refer to the Pukhtoon people. For this piece I have been advised to use Pukhtoon.
On August 21 a major bombing tragedy occurred near the western Afghan province of Herat. According to the Afghan government and UN sources, 60 children and 30 civilian adults were killed. The Pentagon has disputed this charge and said that only five civilians and 25 Talilban insurgents were killed in the midnight air attack on the village of Azizabad . Ninety percent of all aircraft in the Afghan war belong to the US. Air attacks have increased dramatically as the Taliban have gotten stronger over the last year. In one month, July of this year, the total tonnage of dropped bombs equalled the total tonnage for all of 2006. The air war in Afghanistan is growing as the balance in the ground war shifts to engage intensified Taliban strength.
Afghan officials in Herat said that the bomb fell on villagers who had gathered for a memorial ceremony for a person killed last year. This story was a minor blip in the late August headlines as US politicians maneuvered for position at the polls and struggled to outdo one another to support the war effort in Afghanistan. Unless an independent inquiry is launched the entire incident, perhaps one of many in Afghanistan, will hover on the edge our consciousness for several months as official military inquiries grind on until its memory disappears.
But, an independent inquiry requires people on the ground with skills in interviewing, cross checking and a commitment to establishing the truth. Included among the questions would be how many people were killed? Was there reliable or inaccurate intelligence? Had villagers actually gathered for a ceremony of remembrance? Was the ceremony a cover for other organizational endeavours? Were there civilians present? Were there actually 30 children killed? Why would children be present if the event was called for strategic reasons? As a real inquiry developed, these questions would lead to deeper questions related to air strikes in general and the accountability of expatriate bombings to the Afghan government.
In conditions of war where suspicions run high and truth is regularly compromised it is difficult but not impossible to carry out such an inquiry. For credibility a team of fact finders would need to be made up of a combination of Afghan and international participants who can carry on conversations and ask questions in an atmosphere of trust. My own experience is that the passions unleashed by an event such as this pushes the families of victims to outbursts of anger mixed with statements of truth telling. By meeting enough people a general picture of what occurred can be reconstructed and described in detail. It may be more difficult to gain reliable information from military sources but even this is not impossible. My experience is that despite the appearance of rigid discipline and single mindedness there are soldiers who will talk usually off the record and after a respectful relationship has been established.
In violent conditions like the town of Azizabad on August 21, 2008, persons from the outside may be viewed as deceptive representatives of those who carried out the bombing unless introductions are facilitated in a trusted manner. Other forms of trust building may be required. But most important is the interview process itself. Where trauma, hatred, fear, distrust and grief are present, relating with a personal touch can be crucial. The quality of the interview, if limited only to the objective facts, may remain surface and even be devoid of factual reliability. The interviewer may need to address the pain and grief or the memory of the one(s) who died by questions such as, What can you tell me about the person who was killed? How was he or she known in the family or village? Did the person have any premonition that a terrible tragedy may be in store? Finally the team of inquiry will have to address the question that is uppermost in minds of families of the victims, What good will this inquiry achieve? Will anyone listen? Will we see compensation or justice for the tragedy?
This kind of work takes time. Many would prefer that an inquiry be bent to make recommendations to policy makers, i.e those who plan the bombing and target them My own judgement is that it is much better to simply tell the story of what happened as truthfully as possible. When the fact finding team is confident of the truth, its findings will speak for themselves. Perhaps the independent inquiry will find that US spokesperson Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green was right when she described the charges of killing so many civilians as, “outrageous”. But, if official responses prove to be unfounded and it turns out that a massacre has occurred, the findings will cry out to the world with a quality of moral indignation that no one, not even a heavily medaled general can disregard for long.
Filed under: Blaming the Victim, Detainees, Iraq, Politics of Empire, Viet Nam
Five years ago US troops invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. The news this week is daunting and violent – hints of more divisions in Iraq. There are an estimated 2.5 million Iraqi citizens who have fled their county and another 2.5 million internal refugees. Almost twenty percent of Iraq’s population have become refugees. Thirty-three years ago, April 30, 1975 the war in Viet Nam ended. After the Viet Nam war approximately three million people fled Southeast Asia, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Viet Nam, now largely conflict free, is a nation with one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, three times as high as the United States. Viet Nam also has a lower poverty rate than its neighbours including India, China, and the Philippines. None of us can predict how conflicts will have been resolved in Iraq by 2045.
While history never repeats itself there are myth like patterns that are recycled. We rely upon myths to explain war, peace, politics and the heavens. Myths are part of our collective story that become more visible in times of war. The five myths about US involvement in Iraq I discuss below, were alive during the Viet Nam war 40 years ago.
Myth I: Blame the Victim: Turn on your TV and you will hear Presidential candidates or one of their Senate colleagues announce another ringing critique of the Iraqi government for failing to bring all Iraqis together in unity to fight terror. The Iraqis are regularly chastised for dithering over how the vast oil resources will to be apportioned. And just like the Viet Nam war, opportunistic politicians and trickster columnists charge Iraqis, often correctly with reckless disregard for human rights. It is a message of blame. THE LACK OF PROGRESS IS THE FAULT OF THE IRAQIS. IF THEY JUST DID WHAT WE THINK SHOULD BE DONE EVERYTHING COULD BE FIXED.
For ten years during the Viet Nam war we heard a steady cacophony of voices from liberals, conservatives and even critics of the war that the South Vietnamese government which was propped up by the US was not democratic and repressed its people. Blaming language was used by war proponents and critics. A long term strategy that emphasized negotiations, and humanity instead of war making may have moved the world community in positive ways that we can only dream of.
Myth II: If We Believe we are Helping! It must be OK. In the early years of the Iraq war I spent many days seeking out military officials of the occupation. As I waited with Iraqi family victims to solicit information about detainees, often with little result, I talked with young officers and soldiers about the US mission. In those early days when US hope for success had not yet yielded to disenchantment I was often told, “We are just here to help the Iraqis help themselves and then we will go home.”
My mind flashed back to Viet Nam where I first encountered these innocent statements of purpose, often combined with talk of “hearts and minds”. In Viet Nam I thought this was a newly minted rallying cry just for that war. Forty years later I realize that these sincere lines about helping and concern have been woven through war on aboriginal peoples, the Philippine war and other imperialist adventures. So you will understand why I cringed when I heard those words in Iraq. My Iraqi co-workers listened politely to the soldiers, like Vietnamese did many years ago, but sometimes grasped the patronizing implications of this deeply held myth.
While in Iraq I imagined a busy neat office nestled in the bowels of the Pentagon equipped with the latest copy and fax machines with data base list readied, their mission to coordinate the teaching and believing in this myth. Later I decided that it is probably a fairly lean office lying in wait to send out its words whenever, wherever they may be needed. Even without the copy machines, myths like “We are just here to help the people.” are embedded deeply within us. That is why preachers, generals, politicians, candidates and sincere soldiers use these words with such powerful effect.
Myth III: War Helps Human Rights: As I made my rounds to military offices in Baghdad I never found a military officer or soldier who spoke disparagingly about human rights. In fact for some the elimination of Saddam and the Baathist rule, was one of the greatest contributions to humanity in this age. Some at mid and lower levels were genuinely frustrated that more could not be done for those Iraqis who had disappeared in the detention system. One sergeant hugged me as I left his squad. He told me that I was doing important work and hinted that he would like to join the group that I was with. Soldiers with so much good will were still unable to protect prisoners at Abu Ghraib
Nor did the good will of the soldiers protect us from ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, independent armies, and the other multiple forms of terror that swallowed up the tidy conversations about human rights in the years that followed. . In Iraq the humanitarian rules of warfare have taken a step backwards. The use of terror on both sides with bombs and assassination programs characterized the conflict in Viet Nam too, where both sides appealed to the temporary use of violence in the interest of a greater good.
Myth IV Our Exit Brings Greater Violence: When I finish my speeches one of the first three predictable questions is, don’t we have to stay now because if we leave things will get worse? Won’t our departure lead to balkanization, greater instability and a larger blood bath? The language of the question is almost identical to what I heard 40 years ago during the Viet Nam war. The myth says that US forces, aid and advice must continue in order to make things come out less violent, more orderly, and democratic.
The presence of foreign military players misshapes people and institutions who would not under local mores seek redress with guns, assassinations, suicide killings for religious or nationalist reasons. And that presence, in effect, puts off the day when the diverse components of society can evolve in their own way by negotiations and confrontation towards greater participation and democracy. No military power or outside mediator can make things come out right. In their own time local processes will allow a new balance. The unified Viet Nam 33 years after the war ended, though imperfect in its respect for diversity, may in fact help everyone see long term hope for Iraq if foreign troops and US policies get out of the way.
Myth V: These People Have Always been at War: History is often written to emphasize the epic wars. But the myth that the history of other societies, be they aboriginal peoples or nations unlike our own, are a continuous unfolding of war and violence is false. The sub text of this myth is that unlike us, “those” people are wired for killing and war at a deep level. I invite you to travel the world with me to visit the families of victims wherever they survive and you will be disabused of any temptation to this false prophecy. As we travel we will find deeply rooted threads of peacemaking in every tradition if we train ourselves to listen.
As children of this enlightened age we have become conscious of the power of these myths. The stories about our enemies are the way that we humans create justification for killing the enemy. Over time these narratives root themselves deep in our psychic habits. When we live off the power of these beliefs we weaken ourselves and make the world more dangerous. Myths are part of us and it takes energy, work, and conscious effort not to become victims of the damage that they unleash in our minds and through us to our culture.
Those of us who live by the convictions of love for friend and foe, the life of nonviolence, also are invited to remind ourselves that our myth that love can and will overcome, is only convincing when it is grounded in real life and actions. Ours is a living story. It is not yet complete. Words strike the opening chord, but the symphony is completed with action. Our vision of the peaceable world can become truncated and used as a club for manipulation by preachers, generals, and politicians and sometimes even by ourselves. I wish I could tell you that the world could be neatly separated between those who only embrace the good myths and those who only embrace the bad myths. But it is not that way. The myths of epic battles, violence and separation have life in all of us. It takes generations to infuse ourselves and our institutions with the habits of love.
President George Bush
600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Dear Mr. President,
Waterboarding is on my mind. I know you have expressed firm convictions that it is necessary. I also understand that as a politician you need to show progress in your efforts to prevail against terrorism. Since we both claim to be Christians I thought I would tell you a story from my own faith history that may be helpful for your deliberations regarding the use of waterboarding and other methods of torture to eliminate the enemy all the way to the gates of hell.
My strand of Christians traces our history back to Jesus through hard times, suffering, and moments of great integrity of life and faith. Historians tell me that the practice of waterboarding can be traced to the Spanish Inquisition in the same time frame as the persecution of my faith ancestors the Anabaptists, by the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Practices like waterboarding were used to put down the Protestant Reformers, Jews, witches and other heretics.
My ancestors were tortured because they refused to accept infant baptism although they accepted and promoted baptism for adults who could make intelligent free choices about becoming followers of Jesus. As the movement away from infant baptism spread, the basic issue was their lack of allegiance to the political authorities as symbolised by infant baptism. Despite pockets of pacifism within the movement for almost a century, Anabaptists were considered lawless, insurrectionists and enemies of the state.
Authorities were convinced that torture would stem the tide of re-baptizing that was then spreading throughout Europe and was considered a threat to state power. King Ferdinand the ruler of the time based in Spain believed that drowning, another use of water for persecution of Anabaptists, was an acceptable state response to the heresy. His people called it the third baptism.
William Schweiker, Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and director of the Martin Marty Center writes, “In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of “water” in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians, Christ’s walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life, the practice takes on profound religious significance). Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must now surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism….”
For my people and many others the story of torture by water does not end with the inquisition although many people were killed and wounded. We are still here. We still believe that adults can be trusted to decide about their faith. Anabaptists were among the forerunners of democracy where the people decide for themselves. The fact that we still exist demonstrates that the instruments of torture failed to eradicate us. In my people’s reexamination of the gospel through those five hundred years we have come to the conviction that Jesus’ teachings about enemy loving is not a teaching that can be temporarily suspended for purposes of emergency public policy. Our refusal to take up arms has gotten some of my people killed too, even in this country over the last 300 years, but not as many as the dangerous idea of baptising adults 500 years ago.
This story from my past which was first told to me by my parents, but later substantiated by people with greater competence in history than my family, has serious implications for foreign and even domestic policy. The lesson is that people with deep convictions find a way to survive, pass on their ideas and grow. I have no doubt that some of my ancestors may have confessed, changed their ideas, or recanted in order to avoid further torture like waterboarding. To tell you the truth I don’t even know what I would do in that situation. I do know that when Chicago police got nasty with me I just became really quiet and practised the highest form of passive resistance. I only did this when I became scared that I would do or say what they wanted me to. Their meanness did not put me at the point of death but it got me a little closer to the territory of torture.
Torture like waterboarding was practised in the Philippines when I worked there in the late 1970s. In that case it was based on the experience of several hundred years of Spanish rule and the practice of torture during the American put down of the Philippine independence struggle at the turn of the century. It didn’t stop the government opponents there either. Nor did it work in Viet Nam where I taught and organized in the 1960s although in both of these situations there may have been persons who chose to cooperate because they just couldn’t stand the pain of torture. More importantly the practices earned a culture of permanent suspicion for the perpetrators of torture and much disrespect for the country you now rule. This growing disrespect is not about to be overcome with subtle or flashy public diplomacy. Some survivors continue to be in a state of traumatic stress until the present.
So now I appeal to you in the name of God and in the name of our country that seeks to be a light to the nations to cast off the vestiges of the Spanish Inquisition. I appeal to you to bring policy out of the shadows of torture into a place where humans can make adult decisions. Could we agree to just try not being a nation that practices torture for the next 100 years, and see if such a consistent public policy brings us closer to a culture of hope on our planet.
Box 1482, International Falls, MN 56649