Filed under: Detainees, Iraq, Militarism, Nonviolence, Philippines, Politics of Empire
This is Gene Stoltzfus’s last essay, completed on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, just before he headed out on his beloved motor-assisted bicycle on the first spring day of the year. He picked up his U.S. mail in International Falls, MN. Then on his return journey, less than a kilometer from home in Ft. Frances, ON, his heart stopped. Please feel free to leave comments after this post on his blogsite: https://peaceprobe.wordpress.com. For more background on Gene’s life and updates on his memorial services, see: http://www.cpt.org.
Gene Stoltzfus, 1940-2010, Presente!
–Phil Stoltzfus, Gene’s nephew
–Dorothy Friesen, Gene’s wife
I have talked to survivors of military interrogation around the world who at some point thought they would not live for another day. I never write about it in the U.S. and Canada because it seems so unbelievable and out of place in a world of sanitized shopping malls and super highways. When I retell their stories I notice that people here fidget. But interrogation processes are one way in which martyrs are created. Martyrs in the original sense are “witnesses to the truth,” with a deep commitment of conscience that sustains them through moments of cruelty and abuse.
Some people are killed during interrogation. They never get to tell the story themselves. So I have learned to listen to those who narrowly avoid interrogation’s brush with death. This might be the time that you will prefer not to read on. But if you stop here you will skip over an important part of living and dying that stretches around the world and touches the entire human family.
I spent two hours in Iraq talking to a 22-year-old student who was arrested in a house raid along with two of his brothers. Until the time of his capture he was relatively uninvolved with anything political, not an unusual story in the Iraq of 2003. After his capture by American military personnel he was not allowed to sleep for two days. After 48 hours the American GIs told him that he would be killed unless he told them where Saddam Hussein was hiding. He was continuously blindfolded. He was told that his brother, taken into custody at the same time, was just now being shot. In the distance he could hear a gun being fired. If he didn’t want to die, he must tell all. Then nearby he heard a gun being cocked and felt a revolver touching his head. He expected to die. There was more shouting from the soldiers and then silence.
“I believed I would die,” he told me. “And then after a long wait I felt my hand to be sure I was still alive.” His blindfold was temporarily removed and then he was marched off to one of Iraq’s prison camps where he met others who experienced similar beatings and moments of terror. He was released three months later because of persistent outside intervention – an advantage that many disappeared people do not have.
My time with him left me exhausted and jolted me to wonder how I would respond to interrogation. Would I make up a story? Would I lie? Would something I say implicate others? Would I respond with anger or physical struggle? Would I go quietly to my death as some martyrs are reported to have done? Would anyone know how I died?
After my talk with the unlikely martyr, the connection of this Muslim student to my own ancestors in 16th-century Europe fluttered in my mind. Did the stories I read in my youth about the Anabaptist martyrs prepare me for this? Death by burning or drowning is now little practiced, but current authorities still believe that truth can be accessed by means of brutality. The pattern of torture used for their interrogation blended now with the people I was meeting. The Anabaptist stories recorded in the Martyrs Mirror (subtitled “The Bloody Theatre of the Anabaptists or Defenseless Christians who suffered and were slain from the time of Christ until the year AD 1660) are part of the continuous tapestry of state-sponsored cruelty reaching to our very own day.
In the late 1970s I worked in the Philippines. One day I was invited to meet a pastor and former political prisoner. The Marcos dictatorship had sent its military and paramilitary to his community and their tactics were designed to control popular discontent through cruelty, terror, domination, killing and confiscation of property. The pastor felt bound by his convictions to do what was possible to protect the people of his church. He was arrested and interrogated for weeks. His body was spent. Finally he was encased in a blindfold and told he would be killed. He felt the barrel of a revolver that touched the temple of his head and rested there for a time while his interrogator demanded that he give names of the people with whom he worked. “I was silent because I couldn’t think any more,” he told me.
“Were you afraid you would endanger others?” I asked. “Of course I was worried that what I said would implicate others but when the gun was put to my head I just expected to die. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I even thought about being a pastor but that didn’t seem very important in the moment. I was ready to die. I just told them to get it over with. During those days I thought about the martyrs. The interrogator didn’t pull the trigger. I don’t know why.”
I felt my gut twitch after the pastor described the near-death moment. Was there anything I could say or do? Anything healing? Anything personal? The pastor, like the Iraqi student 25 years later, only requested that I tell the world what happened to him. That was enough.
Accounts like these stories of people living on borrowed time reach back centuries to pre-Roman times and show me that the impulse to domination is still alive in our as-yet-uncivilized reptilian brain stem. In our time the word “martyr” has morphed from its root meaning of “witness to the truth” to a description of someone who dies for his or her beliefs. The Greeks and early Christians who used the term understood death to be a possible outcome of the path towards truth and light. Eventually “martyr” referred exclusively to those who died for their belief. Those who began as witnesses to truth became martyrs at the time of death. For the Muslim, shahada (martyrdom) also springs from the internal struggle that results in the witness to truth. Both religious traditions have departed from the core understanding of martyrdom in times of political conflict and triumphalism.
From where did my childhood curiosity arise to steal into my father’s study to read about the martyrs? Those drawings of torture and burning bodies awakened wonder within me. In one of my early return journeys to North America from the lands of torture – before I understood that torture techniques had their home here – I was introduced to a new psychological disease called the martyr complex – seeking persecution to fulfill an inward need. Had I been the unwitting recipient of this disease? Or was the use of the term “martyr complex” the work of a psychologist who had never met a torture victim or known the honored path to witness practiced by martyrs?
Church buildings pay tribute to martyrs, including long-forgotten soldiers who died in distant lands to protect the nation or empire. Their deeds are celebrated and interwoven with patriotism. I have visited churches in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Anabaptist martyrs, where they place the Martyrs Mirror on their altars before the service of worship and return it to a locked closet after the service. I once inquired about the influence of the book of martyrs in the life of worshipers and was told that, “Most of us have no idea about the stories in that book. It’s from another time.”
Why are soldiers and interrogators still trained in the craft of torture? Can moral outrage and attempts to protect the prisoner change things? Why do Christian crusaders or Muslim suicide bombers slip into patterns of domination that kill and destroy in a manner that cannot possibly reveal truth? Can respect for and veneration of martyrs draw us closer to the truth when the patterns of our lives are so remote from the authentic truth-seeking represented in martyrs?
Genuine martyrs appear when people believe that their witness on earth is connected to the whole of the universe. Martyrs are not inclined to draw attention to themselves, but their path can draw people to the glory and faith of a vision. Martyrs have all the foibles of the rest of us. Some may not deserve the label. In our human family great movements that push us to transcend boundaries with visions of hope produce martyrs. But organizations and movements become emasculated and ineffectual when they protect themselves too much from the risk of bold witness. On the other hand, they also undercut themselves when they slide into violence against others in order to try to control the outcome of their vision. We have the challenge of incarnating a blend of vulnerability and boldness.
The test of martyrdom is whether that particular witness to the truth helps to support and sustain the community’s commitment to a full-bodied vision of peace and justice. The martyrs are present with us and may be more powerful for their witness in death than they ever could have been in life.
Filed under: 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: Iraq | Tags: conscience, counter insurgency, Human Rights, ICRS, listening to the people, Nonviolence, torture
The most terrifying condition in a culture where terror is practised is the disappearance of the suspect. The victim is at the mercy of the captors. The family is totally devoid of information and feels helpless. Responses from supporters range from outrage to violence or depression. Absolute uncertainty and raw fear fills the void created by the absence of information. A person may be tortured, molested, and killed and no one may know for a generation or forever.
State officials normally deny or claim an absence of information that the vanished person is in fact detained. The final days of Jesus life included attack on his spirit and body. We don’t know all the details. However, experiences with US and other foreign forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and domestic armies in Latin America help us fill in some of that detail. By tuning ourselves more closely to these tragedies we gain greater access to the core of the Jesus we read about in the gospels. According to a study by the Pew Research Center 62% of white American evangelical Christians polled said it is “often” or “sometimes” justified to engage in torture to gain information from suspected terrorists. Would a faith that fully understands Jesus’ last days lead contemporary Christians to a more confident life of nonviolent sacrifice?
In my work with Christian Peacemaker Teams I spent time in Baghdad in 2003, four months after the occupation began. Before I arrived in late July families had already begun to contact the team seeking help and information on disappeared family members who were snatched by American units. In our search for information on the status of disappeared persons we tried various tactics. One day we went to Abu Ghraib prison to seek entry and information.
When we arrived we were greeted by hundreds of family members of the disappeared who overwhelmed us with tragic stories. Because we stopped to listen to some of their appeals for help it took a long time to approach the gates of the prison. We were denied both entry or information. The anger and raw fear outside the gates was palatable. For several hours we listened. Some in our group took notes.
In explosive conditions like that day my conscience vacillates between two responses, don’t give false hope or delve deeply into each case. On the one hand I hesitate to listen too much because even listening is an indication of commitment to find information and create a strategy of intervention. At Abu Ghraib on that particular day my colleagues and I had no response method for individual cases except to publicize the trends through our church and human rights channels. This was not enough.
My second response was to lean more deeply into each individual case to follow through with specific actions and to accompany the fear stricken families to the few offices in the occupation administration that existed. We had tried that route before with no success. With hundreds screaming for help we were overwhelmed. In those days we could have set up a table for complaints outside of Abu Ghraib every day and we could have taken stories from sun up to sun down. Such a strategy would could have been dangerous but danger is inherent in authentic nonviolent work. We didn’t do that in part because we had so few ways to help the desperate family members. Maybe we should have.
On another day we went to Baghdad Airport to seek information about prisoners held there too. Once again we encountered hundreds of persons outside the gates who were beside themselves seeking information on disappeared family members. Again we were overwhelmed with stories. The American guards tried to help. A sargent even went to get his lieutenant to talk to us. He could not help. Finally, in desperation the sargent pleaded with us to go but promised to take the matter up with his colonel, the senior officer . We never heard anything and the disappearances continued as house raids increased throughout Baghdad. Later we went to military bases, holding areas and restricted offices set up to support Iraqis where we encountered more scenes of desperate people literally grasping for help and information. Only months later when a low level military person gave us access to a data base of detainees were we able to provide at least rudimentary information for some desperate families.
Each day before we departed on these missions of fact finding and intervention among foreign soldiers we gathered for prayer, reflection and strategizing. We were reminded of the efforts of Jesus’ followers and family to keep track of him during his interrogation, trial and execution. Little did we know that Jesus’ last days of torture were being reenacted inside the walls of the places that we visited. We saw his bold and pushy follower, Peter, in a new light. We remembered Peter’s denial as he sat in the courtyard around the fire with the religious leadership who instigated the arrest. But now we recognized the Peter within ourselves who went to the place of disappearance, interrogation and mocking to try to track Jesus’ treatment. Peter wanted to protect the disappearing one, but his own survival meant denial of association, a kind of quick interim ethic that shows its face among allies convinced they must help the targets of torture..
We remembered the women of Jesus’ life at the execution and seeking the body at the tomb in order to perform the rites of death and purification of the corpse. For them, disappearance of the corpse was shocking. Even the apparent appearance of two unexpected persons at the tomb did not overcome their terror until their memories were jolted about his earlier words. When they went to inform friends and supporters of Jesus’ absence from the tomb the story was treated as an idle tale. Belief, disbelief, rumours, depression, and urgent attempts to do something and keep the network informed, are all present in this story, a story that reflects the culture of the disappeared and their supporters today.
In the modern world we have two widely acknowledged resources to follow the disappeared. The International Committee for the Red Cross is charged by international customary law to make contact between prisoners and their families through letters. In August 2003 the Baghdad offices of the ICRC were bombed, severely curtailing the ability of the ICRC from doing its work in the unfolding emergency. Secondly, we have the widely established principal of habeas corpus in modern law, a writ ordering that the prisoner be brought before a judge in order to protect the prisoner from illegal imprisonment. Those rights were suspended for detainees in Iraq.
Disappeared (the word is now used as a verb) detainees is one of the most terrifying forms of control that political authorities engage in. According to the UN more than 70 countries have “disappeared” people since 1980. The story of the interweaving of the culture of fear surrounding the arrest of Jesus is one in the long history of the use of this tactic to control populations.
Among Peter and the women who were close to Jesus we see a very personal and moral response more akin to what families everywhere must do in their reach for information and hope. At Abu Ghraib I learned that our responses in those moments calling for urgent action are determined by a lifetime of preparation.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Impunity, Iraq, Viet Nam | Tags: Afghanistan, counter insurgency, torture
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.
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.
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?
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”.
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.
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?
* 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)
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Digital/Star War, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Iraq, Politics of Empire, War and Poverty | Tags: counter insurgency, digital war, drones, Human Terrain Systems, Human Terrain Teams, robotic warfare
From Viet Nam to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan a lot has changed. But some days I am surprised at how much has not changed in the approach to local people. In the absence of tools sometimes called weapons to win hearts and minds the military has turned in two directions, higher technology, and social research.
It is hard to get people to talk candidly with you about their goals, dreams, hopes and personal problems when you carry a gun. Well actually I don’t know this for sure because I have never carried a gun. But I have learned that conversations don’t go very far in villages when I enter accompanied with soldiers or if there is suspicion that I am connected to soldiers.
Modern warfare usually incorporates something called counter insurgency. An insurgency is a rebellion as in an armed movement against foreign invaders or their own government. Those who carry out insurgency usually fight with sticks, rocks, guns, and the forced or willing cooperation of the local population. Unless the powers that be kill everybody, break everything and completely cut off water and food the insurgency usually grows. Building schools, passing out candy or even building irrigation systems doesn’t usually change things fundamentally because the favours, funds and fountain of development helps one side in the community but makes those sides who do not get anything even madder. The battle is called winning hearts and minds. The notion of getting to the heart awakens the imagination to a love affair. You get to the mind through the heart. Thinking right requires consent of the heart.
To get hearts and minds headed in the right direction imperial armies and their coalition partners, local and international, need to know very precisely who leads the enemy so that they can be killed. The CIA was set up to track down the necessary information but very quickly in its history it was derailed to perform operational duties, carrying out secret attacks that could not be traced at least not right away. It takes dangerous and often gruelling decades long work to get good information. Reliable information is called intelligence but in the real world of agency intelligence the product is not always based on intelligent facts because no one was able to assemble reliable facts. So short cuts are needed like analysts who are supposed to be good at reading the signs or what use to be called tea leaves.
I learned this first in Viet Nam when occasionally I met well groomed American civilians – my age or only slightly older – swaggering through wherever I happened to be. Sometimes we would have relaxed conversations during which each of us tried to figure out what the other knew. It took me months and years to realize that these folks were working from a very different framework than the one that I was learning from villagers. At first I thought I was just naive, and unable to read the signs. Later I realized that these folks were not listening to the same people I was. Still later when I became convinced that the war in Viet Nam would come to nothing good, I lost confidence completely in whatever template the smart well dressed civilian contacts seemed to put forward.
From Viet Nam to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan a lot has changed. But, some days I am surprised, at how much has not changed in the approach to local people. In the absence of tools sometimes called weapons, to win hearts and minds the military and its operational partner, the CIA has turned in two directions, higher technology, and social research.
Unmanned vehicles (drones) now circle the skies of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with precision cameras scoping out targets and precision laser guided missiles ready to release their terror at the push of a button from command room pilots and staff thousands of miles away. Hired informants, some of whom are double agents on the ground may suggest targets. These attacks in Pakistan have caused a furor among Pakistani people. The US Defence Secretary’s budget this year calls for spending $2 billion on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, with much of the money going to drones.
Complementing the drones, digital warfare’s current crown jewel, is another innovation, Human Terrain Teams (HTT), unveiled in 2005. HTT are as radically low tech, as Predators and other robots are high tech. The teams incorporate professional anthropologists, other social scientists, linguists and analysts, who are assigned to forward area units. The civilian and military HTT team members who advise commanders may or may not carry weapons. The researchers talk to and listen to the local population to understand power, conflict, and grievances so that responses both developmental, relief, and military may be wisely targeted, timed, and conditioned for maximum effect. The use of anthropologists has brought warnings from their professional association. The first ethical responsibility of an anthropologist is to “do no harm.”
Some Human Terrain Team members report that the hardest part is overcoming the suspicion of being part of the American military – no surprise to development, relief, and human rights workers or unarmed peacemakers who carry out their work in militarized zones. This year 40 million dollars more was added to the US defence budget for Human Terrain Teams.
Part of me is sympathetic to a military commander who is usually left to his or her elementary instincts in relating to a local population. I have never felt that I was sufficiently knowledgeable or listened enough to local people when I travelled in peacemaking work. Admittedly, I had a little less to contend with than the soldier. I wasn’t as encumbered by the confining traditions and culture of combat and enemy talk. But let’s face it basic survival instincts are common to all of us who work under life threatening situations.
Will the Human Terrain System work? We’ll see. Probably not! Insurgencies of all kinds have a lot of control over the initiative. Insurgents can figure out how to influence Human Terrain Team members. Interviews can be finessed. Local culture can be tilted to encourage attack on an intertribal or intra tribal enemy A good researcher should be able to sort the truth from the wasted words. But can they? There is little that is reliable fact in a war situation where the first victim is truth itself.
If social research gets to the truth why have there been so many disputed bombings in Afghanistan where so many civilians have been killed? Is the problem cameras from above, analysis or social research. The analysing industry will grow. Human Terrain Teams will become part of the lexicon of war like psychological operations units, civic action officers, special forces and other specialized units that someone once thought would change everything and make those elusive hearts and minds more accessible and manageable.
This leaves me with other kinds of peacemaking, the kind without uniforms, drone protection from the sky, a culture of enemy talk and personal arms. I may not have complete confidence in Human Terrain Teams but I believe peacemakers and development workers too can deepen their capacity to listen to and enlarge cultural understanding too. Peacemakers are not engaged in a contest over control of hearts and minds. The only victory is peace. The sounds and visuals along the way give encouragement and hope. Peacemakers believe that the seeds of peace already exist. The point is to have eyes to see the signs, ears to hear its cadence and a voice to talk it out. In the absence of enough unarmed civilian peacemakers if Human Terrain Teams can help this to happen I will be the first to celebrate.
“I tell you,” he (Jesus) replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)
Filed under: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Connecting Across Borders, Iraq, Nonviolence
The tone we set in peacemaking is everything. Without an approach of curiosity, candour, and honesty we can be assured that progress will stop. In a peacemaking conversation there is always more to communicate than the content of the contentious issue. The tiny symbols of timing, dress, place and body language all make a difference and may open or close doors. Appropriate gift giving may be a critical part of this language in some cultures. This is true in the global tangle of conflicts but it is also true at the community and institutional levels.
Listening takes into account deeper nuanced messages that are closer to the heart. This path of interested, curious, listening comes about when we trust the preconscious and semi conscious levels of our lives. We can assume other peoples have found their own ways to be at home with those inner messages. Peacemaking, sometimes called diplomacy, is possible when there is a road. Roads are built between us by adventures of nonverbal and verbal communication over a longer period of time. Nations do this on a grand scale, the rest of us do it one on one.
During a trip to Iraq I joined a CPT team member in a visit to a family in a hard to find neighbourhood on the outskirts of Baghdad. The family had contacted our team some weeks earlier because one of their sons had disappeared early in the occupation, and they were desperate to find him. The taxi driver who took us was hesitant because he was not familiar with the community. Nevertheless, we set out on our search.
After an hour’s drive we reached the neighbourhood where we repeatedly asked for more specific directions. People were cautious. After many turns on deteriorating side roads we finally reached the street where local people pointed us to the house. The family invited us in and recalled their request for help and inquired about our work. The discussion seemed stalled for a time as tea was served. Suddenly the man of the house announced that the son had been released three weeks earlier. We were relieved but there seemed to be a continuing pall over the room as more tea arrived. Then we asked if the son was available so that he could tell us his story. They said someone would go find him. We waited.
Suddenly the former detainee burst into the room. He began shouting at us. In his shouts he appealed to a situation in Egypt where people like him are mistreated and the Americans support the government. His voice was loud and animated. We listened in confused silence. After a time we asked if he could tell us about his recent detention and what transpired. He replied with another diatribe on how awful things were, then paced back and forth in the room as his elders tried to quiet him down. A third time he lashed out at us whereupon his parents prevailed upon a relative to take him from the room. They told us that he had been inclined to these kinds of emotional responses since his release. He was not like that before, they said.
After a few more polite exchanges we left and then began the task of decoding the contrasting tones of our exchange. Had the former detainee been severely mistreated or even shamed and was his behaviour, as suggested by the parents, the result of traumatic interrogation? Or was he communicating a rising anger and bitterness of one Baghdad community in the early stages of occupation? In dozens of meetings with Middle East families I had only once encountered an outburst like this. In Middle East society this kind of behaviour is rare in early get acquainted meetings. However expressions of anger may occur later as a part of a larger process of negotiations.
On reflection later I believe that the son’s behaviour probably reflected all of the above and more. The fact that the family presented the son to us after a time of ambivalence suggests that they thought it would be safe for them if we met the son despite the unsettling nature of what was to come. The son’s message included revenge, fear, and hatred. My mistaken inclination at the time was to simply see his diatribes as the expression of anger over detainment. I was wrong. Although he may have carried conscious and subconscious pain, that pain had a real source in the unfolding events and deserved an interpretation by me that reached beyond the psychological. I failed to read the loud tones, and preferred to confine my interpretation of events to polite Middle Eastern coffee and tea hospitality. Had I listened more deeply I could have anticipated the enormous outbreak of violence and revenge in communities like his in the coming two years.
In real listening we don’t necessarily learn so much that is new. Actually we simply recognize much of what we already know. The catch is that we all have highly-developed systems of sorting, judging and eliminating information that either doesn’t fit or makes us uncomfortable. We train ourselves to do that. By listening more deeply to outbursts, to body language and the choice of words we get hints that can move peacemaking along because we know where to get started with warnings, activism and interpretation. In real listening my impatience, prejudice, and need to analyse is overcome. I let the messenger’s total communication affect me.
In my experience I know when I have listened because my energy becomes more animated with a sense of connection to the person and the larger context. Compassion and concern are awakened. I am allowed at least for a moment to hear not just words but the intent of the person and this gives me a sense of connection to the person and also to the universal. I know that the analytical have its place and will come later. In the moment of connection my whole bodies including all five senses are listening.
Over the years I have had many opportunities to introduce learning tour participants and leaders to difficult situations where justice was broken and people were angry. I joined my colleagues from the West often with our trusty notebooks where I would jot down words and names that were spoken, copiously attempting to keep a perfect record only to discover later that my notes failed miserably to capture the power of the exchange that I remembered. Only rarely did our local colleagues have notebooks but often I found their memory of the encounter more reliable. Eventually I learned that my notebook was a filter that I mistakenly hoped could catch the truth.
We live in a time when the fabric of the community of nations could be thoroughly tested. We are tempted to rush in with analyses that lead to solutions of threat and force especially when we have power. When we do that we may get lucky for a time. But our luck will inevitably run out and no amount of power or threat will force the peace.
We can set a different tone by listening deeply from the heart. The time has come to bring compassionate listening to fragile relationships from the community level to the palaces of the world.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine - Israel, Politics of Empire
When President elect Obama takes office in January the clamour of voices in the Middle East and here for more peaceful relationships based less on threats, harsh pronouncements, and more on persistent talking may have a chance. That chance is elevated significantly if people like you and I bring our concerns to the table persistently and persuasively. Obama knows how to listen; it’s important that we speak. This is not the time to withdraw into our cocoons to practice impatient or irritated advocacy.
At least two themes that have been present in the campaign virtually from the beginning can help sustain our energy. Talking to adversaries was particularly emphasized early on although it was less prominent as the campaign gathered momentum. Sometimes this is referred to as soft diplomacy, a term that power brokers are reluctant to use because it can imply weakness. People in power dare never look weak in a democracy like the United States, a super power and financially strapped empire.
The other theme that characterized the campaign from its earliest stage was change. The language of change has been included in every campaign, cause or movement that I have been part of. In the world where I have worked it is almost a rule that change comes from the bottom. You think you are part of something real when the word “change” is thrown around. Change is part of the adrenaline. But using the term without a thoughtful strategy is like trying to drive a two-wheel drive vehicle through a bank of snow. You get stuck.
I believe that in the Obama campaign the heavy reliance on the change theme arises directly from community organizing experience and the Black church which he embraced until his harsh critics wedged him away from his pastor of so many years. You can see his willingness to distance himself from his church as a lapse in judgement or you can see it as a generic characteristic of a good organizer whose allies and enemies are always ready to use, misuse or exploit the emerging moments when success (in this case getting elected President) appears plausible.
Change is one of those words that can be used to cover and uncover good and bad. For community organizers the process of change means identifying the issue after lots of direct conversation with people. The next step is crucial, figuring out the avenues for grass roots people to be involved in the process. Without this step there is no change because economics, media, political and sometimes ecclesiastical policy is stuck in the way things have always been. This is when change gets messy and tempers flare. Change oriented people including pastors and community organizers are called bad names. Long held images of class, race and religion are invoked to keep things as they always have been. In the process of change friends and enemies are disturbed because both rely upon the status quo for continuity and safety. I believe honest talk and confidence that real change can happen, are deeply rooted in Obama because he has seen it work.
I don’t believe that just talk alone assures success for repair of the tangled conditions in the Middle East but I do believe that Obama, the community organizer, now on a world stage may have integrated some lessons from the grass roots that can help. Most of us will be frustrated and impatient as we see the same old names marching to cabinet and staff appointments. We are assured that they know how to get things done in Washington. We’ll see.
The habit of the new President of seeking advice from various voices, also a characteristic of a good organizer, will help. It is within our power to consistently remind this new administration of the core values from which it sprang and remember that change comes usually uncredited from the grass roots. In other words let’s gear up for the long march, a march that starts from the bottom.
Obama has already courted the Israeli lobby and has made several unequivocal pronouncements of support for Israel. His appointment of a chief of staff with long family roots in militant Zionism may disappoint us but need not. These are not the only people Obama has talked to over the last 25 years about Palestinian and Israeli blood and US complicity. He knows as much as any of these insiders that the passing of years makes a real solution even more difficult and that the fair exercise of US words and power can move things along.
He knows that a father of anti communism, Richard Nixon, was the one who led the breakthrough with China. He knows that the core belief in fairness must be lived out and that the process requires unexpected partners who can be cultivated over time. A new conservative government in Israel may empower the neo conservative voices in North America, but their influence is on the wane at least for now. Peace from the Mediterranean to Pakistan, sometimes incorrectly lumped together and called the Middle East, will be heavily influenced by what occurs in Jerusalem.
Obama knows that his promise to bring home the combat troops from Iraq in 16 months – from population centers by mid 2009 and completely by 2011 – must be honored or he will pay dearly. As the Iraqi government becomes more authoritarian either with civilian or military leaders or both, the grand Baghdad experiment will be increasingly criticized from all sides not the least from those neo colonial voices urging the US to stay and “finish” the job.
This is why the strategy of talking with adversaries, so emblazoned on the early rhetoric of the Obama campaign, must be initiated from day one. Talking does not mean that those of us who want to support Obama will always learn about the conversations. I really don’t care if the conversations are confidential, in fact I assume they will be. I just want them to happen after a full review of what can be done to loosen up the stalemate. This is where the discussions about nuclear bombs, deterrents and delivery systems needs new thinking – from the context of the entire region, Israel, Pakistan and Iran. Has anyone noticed that Iran may have legitimate fears?
Most of us have forgotten or perhaps never knew that Iranians cheered the exit of Saddam as well as the end of Taliban rule (at least for a time) in Afghanistan, though the subdued nature of their cheering and reasons for cheers were not like we may have witnessed in the US. I suspect that the 70% of the Iranian population less than 30 years of age will be curious about this new American president and how he will relate to their own aging religious leadership and themselves. Breaking through the language of enemy and evil will require fresh initiatives from the new President early in the life of the new administration. Our voices, occasional delegations to Iran and other grass roots efforts will help make that new thinking crisp for what could be a new era.
This brings us to the third pillar of conflict of the region, Afghanistan. I really don’t know if Obama believes he will be able to chase down Bin Laden in Pakistan or if he did, anything would change. Things get said in campaigns that don’t last beyond campaigns and I hope that this is one of them. One President had to eat words like that. I hope Obama knows better. The Russians once were convinced that more troops would bring victory in Afghanistan. They lost their empire along the way and left behind a government that crumbled into corruption in the face of war lords and then the Taliban. The players from that era are still around and corruption in the modern Afghan state is mounting again. A community organizer knows that those are the people who will have to be talked to and the solution may not look pretty. This will mean a major redrawing of the lines and strategies regarding world wide terrorism, a movement that is now older, a little tired and much better understood than ten years ago.
People like me are sometimes chastised for failing to “stand up” against violent terrorists. In real politics I know that states must protect their populations from terror; not doing so is a violation of the myth of national existence. I have seen first hand how the experience of terror across the Middle East has touched so many. Terrorism comes from people who think they can make things better through violence and somewhere along the way their struggle becomes a holy and righteous war, a freedom struggle, something worth dying for.
Let us be honest, people at the bottom have experienced terrorism by every army, armed group above ground and underground in the region. One nation’s defence of a way of life is another nation’s experience of terror. The use of house raids, smart bombs, predator (drone) aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles, and any weapons of mass destruction threatens all of us. Empires and great powers rarely change their ways without significant pressure. Our work may begin with just a few words. We can change one piece of the complicated equation in the Middle East, the part that the US directs. Words are completed with action. One action that we may need to prepare ourselves for is the development of pastoral teams to visit the victims of terror be they in Gaza, Fallujah, Mossul (ancient Nineveh), or the mountains of the Frontier Territories of Pakistan.