PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Worth Living For—Worth Dying For by peaceprobe
March 14, 2010, 2:26 pm
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: For more background on Gene’s life and updates on his memorial services, see:
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.


Lucky in Vegas by peaceprobe

The invitation to a gathering of reflection on peacemaking in Las Vegas came several months ago.  I was honoured to join the group for a day because the question of how to respond to America’s current wars, its plans for dominance in space and the unfolding movement of robotic warfare challenges all of us, young and old, to think in fresh ways.  My time in Vegas would be completed with another adventure in contemplation in the desert sands where Creech Air Force Base trains pilots for robotic warfare.

The collapse of world wide finance and my lack of confidence in the big players may be creating a greater space for imagination.  When I complained to one participant, Vincent Harding, that I still have little confidence in what to do he gave me a little pastoral advice from an African proverb.  “How do you eat an elephant,” he asked. “One bite at a time.”  I left Las Vegas where the demons of irrational luck seem to be in control determined to free up the mirage of powerlessness in my mind.

I am done with letting the big players and gaming machines control the culture.  I know more than I have acted upon.  Economics is also a matter of spirit.   My mind’s deep freeze has kept me from the light within and the possibility of light in my opponents, the people who manage the remaining collapse of a world that takes care of the people who are “too big to fail”. Truth happens in experiments.   It is backed by courage and preparedness for the teachable moments.  My time in Las Vegas was one of the moments when I was taught.

My wake up call to finance capital was completed in the biggest detention center of Las Vegas.  But first I had to go to Creech Air Force Base 45 miles northwest in the desert. I wanted to meet a commander at Creech to discuss the work of Predator I and II, the drones that I heard so much about from Pakistani people when I visited that Muslim country in June.   I joined a group of seven. But, as we began to walk along the commercial entry way to Creech AFB we were detained by Clark County police behind a large movable cement barricade.  We were placed in the care of military police with heavy belts who pointed their big black guns at us.  It gave me a little extended time to think about the finances that pay the bill for Creech.

As we waited in front of the guns to be transported to Clark County Detention Center, two blocks from the Golden Nugget, one of Las Vegas oldest sanctuaries of luck, my colleagues asked me to redeem the time by giving a full voiced report on my recent trip to Pakistan for the benefit of my fellow detainees and our guard – caretakers.  With apologies to my friends back in Pakistan for the absence of tea service I was able to represent truthfully some of what I learned about their fears of being the objects of Predator drones and their hopes for an unfolding of justice with peace in South Asia.

By midnight six hours after the pilgrimage into Creech began, I had been fingerprinted several times, questioned repeatedly, tested for TB, had my blood pressure checked, asked if I had recently tried to commit suicide, and I repeatedly spelled and corrected my last name for the vast criminal bureaucracy of the Las Vegas region.   Somewhere along the way I was relieved of my shoes, socks, watch, ID, money, and everything but my pants and shirt.   Later in the night I was pushed into a 10 foot by 20 foot holding cell where 18 other people were already making some kind of peace or silently plotting revenge at police who had shouted or insulted them on their road to detention.

The sounds of the cell included broad sustained snores, other body noises and loud television,  a cacophony that reminded each of us non sleepers that we had reached a peculiar moment of truth.  By approximately four am a gruel like slop arrived for breakfast.  Most of us could not face the Wonder Bread and whatever else there was.  Nausea teased our stomach muscles.  The guards had thoughtfully placed a large plastic bag in the middle of the floor and told us to put any left over food that we couldn’t eat or would not stay down into it. “If you make a ‘blankety blank’ mess,” screamed the guard. “You can plan to be in the holding area for two more weeks.”

By the time of my release the second and third “gruelling” meals had come and gone.  As those hours passed, I got to know my cell mates.  Several had been picked up for the high crime of jay walking evidently a matter of major concern in the city of mostly bad luck.  Others were picked up for traffic violations.  Everyone except me had some other kind of outstanding legal problem.  For several men, simple records had never been updated.

My loss of shoes and socks became a matter of considerable concern since the temperature in the holding area of lucky town is just south of a cool fall day near the solar ice cap. While the street people slept through the fog like another day on the tracks, the rest of us shared our stories.

One man, a high roller was tracked for outstanding debts of $125,000 at two casinos when he was stopped on a traffic violation.  A couple calls and he zipped up his $700 dollar shoes and was off to another race. He told me he once won $600,000 in two hours but admitted his career on the strip had lost his family a lot more than he had won.  I managed to get a modest applause, enough to wake up the permanent sleepers when I told them I was in for “disturbing the war” at Creech AFB.

Actually I think I got lucky in Vegas because I was introduced to at least two angels in waiting.  I haven’t had a chance to talk to them very much yet.  You see angels always come to me in unkempt and upsetting ways.  First, the angel of unearned and unconscious powerlessness showed up in the gathering to do peace visioning.  I will be talking to that angel.  The second appeared in both the shouts of the Clark County Sheriff’s officers and in the up close and personal discussions with other detained people. My cell mates were curious about Afghanistan and Pakistan but they also reminded me to watch out for bully behaviour wherever it shows up, in Afghanistan, in Las Vegas police uniforms, on the back streets of Vegas or on Wall Street.  I will be having more conversations with this angel too.   The light and dark of the desert has gotten me revved up again.  I guess that is what a reflection session and retreat is supposed to do.  Thanks!

Torture: Trials of The Unspeakable by peaceprobe
September 10, 2009, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Impunity, Iraq, Viet Nam | Tags: , ,

Torture has been on my mind.  I know that I need to push back its cover from where it dwells in the shadows.  I know that my nation may refuse to do so when they use torture as a means of waging war as a path to peace.  Lecturing others about torture comes more easily. I have learned in the last fifty years that laws preventing torture, and molestation will not stop it.  But law will help.  However, only a moral conversion will change things.  People tell me human nature will never change.  I believe change is always happening.  It’s what we do with change that counts.

The challenges of torture raised by Abu Ghraib (Iraq), Guantanamo (Cuba) and Bagram (Afghanistan) are particularly striking for Christians since at the heart of our faith is the memory of the flogging, taunting and execution of Jesus.  It takes courage to face the horror, overcome my silence and make an honest attempt to talk truth.  I  read the Bible, and only see the agony narratives as sanitized crucifixion drama that builds to resurrection.  I like Easter because it gets life moving again.  But resurrection invites me to look into the face of my species with both compassion and moral confrontation, two threads that are hard to carry simultaneously.  Resurrection is understood by admitting and looking at the whole story which includes frame-up, betrayal, torture, conviction and slow painful death.

Six years ago this month I was in Baghdad where I talked to some of the earliest prisoners to be freed from detention after the American occupation began. I wanted a profile of what was happening and maybe some hints on how to intervene with protective actions.  The interrogation routines reflected patterns, revolvers pointed at heads, loud sounds, sleeplessness, shouting, taunting, accusations and more.  When these descriptions ended very often there was a sigh and the former detainee would look at me and say “and there were things about which I cannot talk”.  I could not imagine what the unspeakable things might be until I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib.  Then the unspeakable “things about which I cannot talk” took shape, sexual humiliation, nakedness, and molestation. Similar interrogation methods were described to me years earlier in Viet Nam, and the Philippines.

Torture and abuse by the modern state over the last century abounds.
These Abu Ghraib torture events happened in an Arab culture where nakedness and sexual innuendo is forbidden.   The pictures displayed sexual humiliation.  Before Abu Ghraib when I read the story of Jesus’ arrest, interrogation, and execution I failed to notice the deeper threads of similarity to modern practices of the politics of domination.  In the first century it was as culturally unconscionable to display someone naked, particularly a Jew in Palestine as it is in Iraq today.  Is it possible to read the arrest stories including Jesus’ stripping and disappearance for a time when he was turned over to the soldiers as a process that included sexual humiliation?  Did Jesus experience not only humiliation but actual sexual assault?*

According to the record Jesus was flogged, a process designed to hurt and humiliate the prisoner.  After Jesus was handed over to the Roman soldiers, themselves foreign occupiers, he was mocked, given a crown of thorns, dressed in courtly purple and taunted.  The digital photos from Abu Ghraib may be the closest representation of what might have happened when Jesus was alone with soldiers, better even than Mel Gibson’s more macho representation in The Passion of Jesus.  What would a hidden camera among the Roman soldiers who taunted Jesus have revealed that we don’t know from the existing record?

Torture touches people at the interface of culture, faith, and fear.  The context of torture creates space for sexual misconduct.  What may have begun as interrogation for fact finding turns into a ritual of dominance, penetration and molestation. Does torture open us to a reptilian side of our nature buried deep inside our brain? We don’t want to look, especially when it turns sexual.  Looking makes us ashamed.  Our shame awakens our lesser selves that we thought we had put away with the progress of history.  Some of us turn our heads in shock when we view the apparently acceptable government approved interrogation rituals on prime time TV.

A crucifixion was an extreme formula of execution in Roman times.  At first, under the Republic it was used for slaves, but under the empire its use was enlarged to include criminals and persons involved in revolts.  Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and disgusting punishment” and the Apostle Paul talks of Jesus’ end, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) almost to suggest that there are all kinds of less humiliating, less painful and quicker ways to be put to death.  Jesus may have been crucified naked as was often practised in crucifixion formulas of the time.  The first century historian, Josephus called crucifixion, “the most pitiable of deaths”.

If it happens, a nation’s recovery from a period of state torture takes decades.  In Latin America where state sponsored torture was rampant it took 15 years before Argentina and other sovereign states began to carry forward trials of perpetrators.  In the United States we are not yet far removed from Abu Ghraib.  Only recently have we learned of a pattern of sexual exhibitionism among State Department sponsored contractors in Afghanistan.

The response of the Obama administration which is to place torture at arms length with more study reflects an ambivalence about dealing with it now.  The brave words heard in the campaign reflected a  belief that we are better than the events of Abu Ghraib depict us to be, something we all want to believe about ourselves and our nation.  But denial also has even wider cultural support.  No leader can take on torture trials without using up considerable political capital and without exceptional support in the population.  President Obama does not have that support because people like me take so long to uncover and admit the depth of our own revulsion.

As I learned of the torture of Iraqi citizens in the wake of the US occupation I had an internal debate.  One voice said it is better to be conservative, methodical and thorough in order to make the unfolding drama of suffering more believable to far away citizens, legislators and military personal some of whom had their own doubts.  The stories we heard from former detainees were compelling and were reported by enough former detainees that I was convinced of their authenticity.  But months went by without wider confirmation in any media with pictures.  Were there symbolic actions, or other things that we could have done to jolt people even without the “smoking gun” of a picture?

When the photos from Abu Ghraib surfaced I was forced to look deeper into the interrogation process than I had before.  The people who supported me now could believe me too because the media gave confirmation.  But what if I could not depend upon media confirmation particularly in an era when being embedded with the military went largely unquestioned?  What if a soldier had not leaked his digital photos for the world to see?  How many more people would have been taunted, and betrayed, by state sponsored torture in Iraq because of my insistence upon evidence that would hold up with sceptics?

In a world where the door has not been closed and locked forever on torture by moral conviction or law I know I have to find a new way through to the heart of truth each time.  The fact that a central figure in my faith walked into an Abu Ghraib type event 2000 years ago reminds me of the continuity of the experience of torture.  I wish his cohorts who responded with denial, betrayal, silence and fear would have been more gutsy. I wish I wasn’t so much like them. There are times when moral conviction is so strong that silence is impossible.


* For a more thorough study of these themes read Prisoner Abuse: From Abu Ghraib to The Passion of Christ by David Tombs in Religion and the Politics of Peace and Conflict, ed. Linda Hogan and Dylan Lee Lehrke, Pickwick Publication, Eugene Oregon (Princeton Theological Monograph Series)

Memorials, Martyrs and Convictions by peaceprobe
March 31, 2009, 7:24 pm
Filed under: Detainees, Peacemaker spirit

In the reunified Viet Nam of today I was startled at first to stumble upon memorials for the martyrs of the American war which appear without warning often with an enormous socialist realist inspired sculpture, a few words from Uncle Ho and then the tiny grave sites.  People visit the sites and remember the martyrs.  Like the Viet Nam war memorial in Washington these shrines to those who died evoke respect and sometimes hope for families, friends, and nations.  

I travelled to Viet Nam after a month in the United Kingdom, Holland and Germany where I visited memorials to the holocaust, one in Berlin and another in Heidelberg, site of a one time synagogue.  In the UK on two occasions my hosts pointed out markers where people were once burned at the stake because of religious courage for doing things like reading an English Bible or illegal unfaithfulness depending upon which side you were on.  

And in Holland my hosts were members of the doopsgezinden or the people who practiced adult baptism and nonresistance to evil in the 15th and 16th centuries, my own ancestors, referred to now as Mennonites.   When I spoke at the Amsterdam Church my hosts brought out a centuries old printing of the Martyrs Mirror for me to view.  I was told that it is retrieved every Sunday morning and placed on a table at the front of the church.  I opened the massive 1200 page book and viewed some of the etchings.  What might these people who gave their lives freely and sometimes singing be saying to me as lenten season approaches?

The ancient book of courage jolts the senses as the commitment to enemy loving is played out in the collected narratives.  My hosts tell me that hardly anyone ever reads this book of stories from the people’s church long ago.  But what about the stories, I gulp silently to myself, having read many of them in English translation as a child in my father’s study.

The Martyr’s Mirror collects stories from people who more than any other group in the 16th century were put to death for acting out their faith.  The collection was assembled by a young man named van Braght who in his early thirties felt that these stories were exceedingly relevant for his generation which had become softened by affluence and had begun to neglect its martyr heritage.  He sought to assemble a complete account of nonviolent Christian martyrs.  “Read it again and again,” he wrote, and “Above all fix your eyes upon the martyrs themselves… and follow their example.”

Although the Anabaptists are today remembered for their nonviolent enemy loving in earlier times, elements within the movement then, impatient with slow progress, turned to organized rebellions and armed revolutionary activity.  Like Muslims today this earned the movement the charge of terrorism and awakened the nations to fear.  One such rebellion occurred in Munster, Germany in 1534-35.  Thomas Müntzer the leader believed that a bloody rising of God’s elect to slaughter the ungodly would usher in the millennium especially for the downtrodden.  The rebellion was defeated but the fear that it engendered lived on for at least a century. It a broader sense Munster was part of the peasant uprisings that preceeded and followed the uprising.

In Heidelberg my path unexpectedly crossed still another reminder of struggle for the poor and the death of a daughter of our own century.  Elisabeth von Dyck, a Mennonite born in Uruguay moved with her parents to Germany as a child.  In the 1970s she became involved with the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Faction.  I probably would not have taken note of the fact that she was shot and killed in Nuremberg May 4, 1979 had I not been working at the time in the Philippines where her acts of armed resistance to advanced capitalism would have been respected by some.

When my German colleague told me that he knew her and attended her funeral at the Enkenbach Mennonite Church where I had spoken just two nights before I perked up.   Thirty years ago  my imagination had been awakened when I read in a prominent news magazine of her death at a safe house in a shoot out with German authorities.  Now as I learned more about the person, Elizebeth, my mind flashed back to the Munsterite uprising more than four centuries earlier from a direct line of our religious forebearers.  I felt a curiousity to know more about her and wished I would have been able to visit her grave site.  No one mentioned her when I visited the church.

Why are most of the memorials to sacrifice for the greater good placed for soldiers who believe that the highest form of sacrifice is to kill “enemies” for the nation and the truth for which it stands.  The Lenten season  reminds me that the highest form of sacrifice is to accept the death, sometimes called martyrdom voluntarily without a hint of violent defence.  By avoiding this opportunity I can slip into the life of defensiveness where others must die for me to protect me.  It is good to honour them.  They remind me and maybe even encourage me to embrace a better way.  I hold to a higher striving for all humanity outside my single nation’s god. I hope I can be awake to the patience, the boldness and higher consciousness that the journey deserves.

My Guantanamo Diary: by peaceprobe
December 30, 2008, 7:36 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees

Book Review: My Guantanamo Diary: The detainees and the stories they told me,  by Mahvish Rusana Khan; Public Affairs 2008

You are promised a combination of amusement and rage in this book that brings to light the world of Guantanamo and the daily life of prisoners.  Author Mahvish Rusana Khan grew up in an American Afghan home and had never travelled to the land of her ancestors until she began her work as a legal intern in Guantanamo as a University of Miami law student.   Beginning in 2006 she made more than 30 trips to Guantanamo and was one of the few persons in the legal establishment working for Getmo detainees who spoke Pashto, the language of eastern Afghanistan, the language of a minority of the detainees held there.  A majority of the detainees are from Arab background.  

When you read the story of No 1154 you will realize the prisoner is more than a number.  He is a pediatrician named Dr. Ali Shah Mousovi who fled the Taliban and was working for a new Afghanistan when he was swept up by US Forces.  His wife waited months to find out what happened to him and his children were forced to grow up without him.  The author visits Afghanistan several times to gather more information about specific cases and during one trip she is able to visit Dr. Mousovi at his home after his release.  

This book gives a sense of the diversity of the Afghan prisoners.  Behind the fences of Guantanamo are people who have done evil and people who were unlucky to have been found in a dangerous place at the wrong time.  Other Pashtoon detainees were passed to US Forces from the Pakistani military who wanted these particular Pakistanis out of sight.  All detainees described the painful and cruel character of the interrogation process.  

Mahvish Rusana Khan’s book will help you discuss Guantanamo with people who believe critics of the system are naive. The human stories of No. 1009, No. 1021 and many more are followed through months of visits and legal processes until you are left asking why there are no trials, why there is no way to prove innocence and why does Guantanamo detention center exist.  Lawyers, prison keepers, interrogators and even courtrooms cannot give us a window into Guantanamo like the author who has unique listening credentials and fluency in the difficult Pashto language.

I wish the stories that the author shares with us did not sound so familiar to me.  But they do.   During my trips to Iraq I heard similar tales from people who were swept up and cruelly interrogated after the occupation began in 2003.  This book is not only important because of the dangers it points to for the American legal system.  It is important because it leaves us empowered to believe that something decent and worth while could be done.

Retooled Myths from Viet Nam to Iraq by peaceprobe
March 31, 2008, 1:00 pm
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.

Waterboarding by peaceprobe
March 12, 2008, 12:51 pm
Filed under: Blaming the Victim, Detainees, Iraq | Tags:

President George Bush

600 Pennsylvania Ave.

White House

Washington DC20500

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.


Gene Stoltzfus

Box 1482, International Falls, MN 56649

tel.  807-274-0138