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: Militarism, Peacemaker spirit | Tags: air force, conscience, Human Rights, pacifism, spirit
Two weeks ago I spoke at a gathering in Austin TX on Honouring Conscience. As I prepared I revisited those times in my life when I had listened to my own conscience. And then I began to make notes of people around the world who had acted out of conscience. I remembered troubling days of decision making many had reported to me. I recalled the joy and freedom that lit up their faces as they told their story and the consequences including changed relationships to neighbours, nation and colleagues that flowed from their decisions. I had never experienced such energy and confidence in preparing for an event as I did for this one.
At our gathering we celebrated acts of conscience in an honouring ceremony where persons from many walks gathered for special words of blessing and recognition, former soldiers, tax resisters, community activists, educators, professionals, workers, and Conscientious Objectors. As the words of recognition were spoken, my mind was also illuminated with a cloud of witnesses with whom I had worked from every clan, culture and nation where I served. It was humbling to be in the presence of this sacred trust of inner light, a force more powerful than law or might.
Immediately before this honouring ceremony I attended a workshop where the presenters included six former and current soldiers from Fort Hood north of Austin, one of the major finishing schools and launch sites for soldiers going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each soldier described his own journey through patriotic acts of killing to preserve “our way of life”. They spoke of the estranging space deep inside called PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), where the meaning of their acts intermingled with their conscience.
One described the “first” Iraqi child he killed because he thought that child would grow up to be a terrorist. Another described a 36 hour odyssey in the field of killing. Each soldier spoke of suicide thoughts, broken relationships, abusive behaviour, lying, stealing, legal and illegal drugs and alcohol in the journey to find safety from the memories. Now they stumble through college classes in a world where there are few jobs. When asked if anything helped in their journey to recovery they agreed that the spirit and compassion of Cindy Thomas who runs a coffee shop called Under the Hood, just off the base gave them hope. Cindy’s active duty husband’s experience and the decision of her son to join the marines compelled her to open this center. The soldiers couldn’t think of anything else that helped them.
But the Iraq veterans were not the only former military people at this event. An important spirit behind the celebration of conscience was Garland Robertson former air force pilot and chaplain. Garland’s journey included his own renewal of conscience when as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force he reached a boundary within that would not allow him to go on without speaking more directly about militarism. A multi year battle with his superiors through rejection, hearings and court cases led to his retirement and current pastoral work at the Austin Mennonite Church. His firm persistent familiarity with the Spirit encourages people around him to be alive to the life of conscience.
As these heroes spoke I remembered the Iraqi soldier I met in Baghdad who refused to serve in Iraq’s army. His ear was partially cut off as a permanent reminder of his disobedience. I remembered the paramilitary soldier in Columbia who showed up one day seeking help to disappear from his comrades who would surely kill him if they knew he was trying to leave. I remembered the local heroes, pastors, prophets, imams, monks and human rights workers who listened to conscience and saved lives in the Philippines, Viet Nam, Burma, Indonesia each in a special time of political emergency. In Pakistan this past June I met a Pakhtoon man from the part of Pakistan where the Taliban are strong who travelled for two days by foot and bus to tell the story of the bombing that his people live under and plea for help to save lives.
Did Albert Einstein really mean what he said, “Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.” Conscience is not something that is owned by a particular class, nation or sect although it is foundational to the life of faith. Nor can it be destroyed when people find ways to listen to it and act on it. Tyranny finds its place when people of conscience fail to act. Listening to conscience does not make us over into perfect specimens of our species. When conscience choices are made the darkest hours of our common life become points of light for all humanity. Even a child understands the voice of conscience.
Before there was law, conscience already existed. That is why the breaking of law is not disrespect for the law. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from the Birmingham jail wrote, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Militarism, Nonviolent defence, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, drones, listening to the people, peace, right to life, Taliban
In the heart of Kandahar, Afghanistan (population 450,000) a bomb went off last week killing 43 people. “Anything can happen to ordinary Afghans. We are not safe. We are without value. We have no right to life,” said one victim whose family is among the living wounded. Who does he turn to? Who will speak for his family?
In 2002 I was in Afghanistan with Christian Peacemaker Teams. It was a time of change. Our peacemaking mission was welcomed. People allowed themselves to dream that the 20 years of war that began when the Soviets invaded might be ending. I returned home hoping that we could place peacemakers there because I saw signs that suggested unarmed violence reduction could augment what villages, groups, and individuals already had, based upon their own patterns of peacebuilding developed over generations.
I listened to village elders describe how they deal with violence, murder and injustice. I heard people describe the bombs that fell near or on their homes after 9/11. I was surprised by people’s candour, their hospitality and their confident formulas for conflict resolution. I am old enough to know that hospitality may be a means of masking the truth, but I also know that by accepting their generosity we each became surer of one another’s sincerity.
I saw rubble and rusting hulks from the Soviet period, the acres and hectares of destroyed city where warlords once fought for spoils. On the road to Bagram Air Force Base I witnessed deserted fields, irrigation systems and villages where crops of wheat and vegetables once fed people of Kabul. “Where have you been all these years?” asked an Afghan when he heard we were sent from the people working for peace. Similar sentiments came from others too, in small gestures of kindness and big dreams shared privately over tea.
I learned from seasoned Afghans that armed and uniformed soldiers would have great difficulty creating the conditions for reconciliation. Even as a civilian I was not convinced that I had a secret instrument for peace. I wanted to be honest but worried that Taliban and the war lords would ignore my fumbling peace probes. Being a foreigner particularly an American didn’t help. After decades of work in conflict situations I had learned to live with my uncertainty. My instinct told me to test and try various words, actions, suggestions in conditions where violent conflict resolution had become routine. Surprise! Something usually works even when society seems to be coming apart .
The signs of the futility of foreign military intervention have been there for at least eight years, and for centuries for those of us who take the time to read the pointers in Afghan history. When a nation is submerged in the political economy of war, turning the dial towards a peaceful direction is more difficult than juggling American citizens to consensus for health care reform. The promise of more foreign troops erects an even higher threshold.
Neither drones, nor F-15s nor brilliantly trained marines can find the path to harvest a new political economy where the things that make for peace sprout and blossom. If the dominant threads of development, crop improvement and infrastructure, are combat-clothed, security is lost for everyone. Suspicion, and opportunism always win in conditions of war. We should not be surprised by the daily rants from the foreign press describing corruption and opportunism. War and development don’t mix. Even the recent elections are exercises in political entertainment, devoid of trust. Our huge social-cultural mind set that violence can be redemptive does not work.
As American or Canadian or British soldiers continue to depart for the conflicted front I hope someone tells them about the kindness of the Afghan people. I hope the soldiers can listen in ways that generations before them would not or could not.
If they do listen they may come home early, not because of bullet wounds or truck bombs, but because they learned that they were sent into a conundrum of the impossible. They will remember the wise voices in the villages where they took extra time to listen. For some foreign soldiers those voices will resonate within because their hearts have been prepared. For them this will launch a new vision that includes all of humanity. I want to support them.
The US and its NATO partners are tired. The people of Kandahar are tired. Everyone is less secure. The 2500 Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, like their partner to the south are stuck. The government of Canada, its people and its soldiers anxiously await 2011 when the government has promised to end the military “mission”. Meantime the United States is preparing to send 20,000 additional soldiers. Without a “right to life” where is the hope? The way we invest in Afghanistan is more costly and treacherous than security swaps on Wall Street. Must we wait until all sides are exhausted to end it?
For the past 8 years I have been thinking about what we can do for Afghans who ask, “Where have you been”? Peace people, let us find our voices. Here are three suggestions.
1. Listening delegations can be organized to spend time in Afghanistan to learn and feel the void of meaning in the violence. Their experience will rev up all of us to engage.
2. Local efforts of listening to returning soldiers will help them sort out their story and complete at least a piece of our own. What have they learned from the Afghan people? about war? about this war? about themselves? about what is worth living for or dying for?
3. When the town meetings happen or the legislative telephones wait to ring, how about a simple message, “The Afghan War is bad for my health”.
Find the local and national organizations who are already working on these items.
For people of faith there must be a response for the words from Kandahar, “We have no right to life.” When I came back from Afghanistan in 2002 despite my best efforts I could not find the people and financial support to place teams in the field there. A whole team of peacemakers could have been placed there for the cost of just one foreign soldier. And for the cost of another soldier several local teams could have been trained and put to work. Those bold words are still calling out to me. “Where have you been all these years?” And, where are we now?
Filed under: Japan, Militarism | Tags: conscience, Hiroshima Day, peace, revenge
On August 15 1945 I was five and a half years old. My mother and I were in the house when the news arrived by radio. I didn’t realize that it was so important. I had never known a time in my life when there was no war. War was normal and it didn’t affect me except for the brown sugar we had to use instead of white sugar for our cereal. My mother asked me to run to the barn and tell Dad that the war was over. I felt an urgency in her voice.
I ran out the cement side walk to the barn and tried to find my father. Going to the barn with a message was normal. Usually it was about someone in the community or church. Occasionally it was about an emergency that my father, a minister needed to tend to. This time was different because it had to do with the whole world. So I ran as fast as I could. He wasn’t in the barn so I looked in the milk house and then the granary, the shop, and the chicken house and finally I found him on the barn bridge repairing something.
Out of breath I ran up the barn bridge as fast I could and said. “Mom said I should tell you the war is over.” There it was I had said it. Dad looked down at me and said, “Oh, I am so glad.” He said it again, “I am so glad.” His response seemed strange because usually when I delivered a message he would race off to the car or to the house to make a telephone call and I would race after him to get in on the action. “Oh, I am so glad.”, he said it again and then he was silent. In the distance we heard the sound of explosions and Dad said, “I think they are celebrating the end of the war.” I was confused because I didn’t understand the meaning of the word, celebrate. My mission was completed. My final words to Dad that day, “But who won?” His answer, “Nobody won.” For months I wandered around trying to understand why, “Nobody won.”
The Little Boy in me is still contemplating how nobody could win. Little Boy was the name of the bomb that exploded over western Hinshou island on August 6 1945, nine days before my mother sent me on my first war ending mission. Some people may have forgotten the name of the bomb that hit Japan.. Most of us may not have known its name.
The images of incinerated Japanese children, parents, soldiers, buildings and playgrounds never get easier to look at. The bomb that destroyed so much within us and killed so many was built by the Manhattan Project (1) an effort the size of the pre war auto industry incorporating the work of 130,000 people. The 5 ton bomb exploded 1,900 feet above Hiroshima directly over a parade field where Japanese soldiers were doing calisthenics at approximately 8:15 am. Enola Gay, the B-29 aircraft named in honour of a favourite fictional character of the pilot’s mother, was already 11½ miles away when it felt the shock of the blast. At first Colonel Paul Tibbet, the pilot thought his airplane was taking flak. After the second shock wave the crew looked back at the city and described what they saw, “The city was hidden by that awful cloud . . . boiling up, mushrooming, terrible and incredibly tall,”
The spiritual cloud of Little Boy from the misted-over memory of my childhood now hovers over all of us. Colonel Tibbet retired in Columbus, Ohio the city where I joined American Mennonites last month for the biannual church assembly. About piloting the Enola Gay he said, “I’m proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it, and have it work as perfectly as it did… I sleep clearly every night.” Shortly before his death in 2005, he said, “If you give me the same circumstances, I’d do it again.”
I still want to deliver my own Little Boy message of August 15, 1945 because the war set in motion by the Hiroshima event is not over. Almost all of us recognize how dangerous it has become. Most of us know that the chances of more Hiroshima explosions anywhere in the world remains very high. So we push it from our memory or leave it to government authorities who work in secret. Sixty-four years ago it took an effort the size of the car industry of the time to build and deliver the nuclear bomb. Today it would take only a handful of motivated and reasonably educated people to deliver one. Moral conviction combined with the fear that we may not survive has held us so far but that dam may break.
“Nobody won,” a teaching passed to me by my father and passed to him from generations before him hints at another way of thinking about winners and losers, attack, revenge and enemy work. On that day 64 years ago Dad started to teach me to suspend my instantaneous need for judgement, punishment and pride of victory. Sometimes I remember to practice these lessons. That is also when hope settles over me so that I can see a unity in the cosmos that may reach beyond my generation.
Filed under: Militarism, Politics of Empire | Tags: conscience, counter insurgency, digital war, military contractors, Robert McNamara, robotic warfare
There once was a very smart man who built cars and figured out ways for big organizations like governments and businesses to do things better. He had what a lot of people called a liberal sense of morality towards the world. Many people were liberal at that time. He wanted to do good and make things better, more democratic. He was a good father who welcomed friends of his children into his home even when they demonstrated against the big military system that he supervised.
At the beginning of the reign of JFK, the emperor called him in Detroit where he was making cars. Emperor JFK asked him to oversee the Defence of the Empire. He replied that he was not trained to take on such a responsibility. The emperor told him there is no school that prepares people for these jobs. So Robert McNamara like many people of his time went to Babylon to serve the people with the best intentions. He wanted to do good, make things more efficient, save the people’s money, and create systems where there was a better chance for good decisions.
His country was about to enter a very big war in a little known area of the world, Viet Nam. The country was already locked in a very hot fight that had the strange name, Cold War. When he took up his job as Defence Secretary his generals believed that if that Cold War went nuclear there must be massive retaliation and as much of the enemy as possible should be destroyed. Within a few years he realized that such massive retaliation might lead to a terrible outcome, mutually assured destruction. So he started looking for ways to trim the atomic weapons. Also in the year of our Lord 1963 Robert McNamara ordered the entire defence system to implement Equal Opportunity for All Minorities. Because of the order the military became the most integrated unit in all of the empire, ahead of churches, restaurants, and businesses.
But sadly most of his time went into that old fashioned war at the edge of the empire. He was a loyal servant of the emperors of the time and tried his best to understand the enemy. Despite misgivings he sent 535,000 soldiers and air planes to that distant land to decimate villages, and roads – anything that would kill or destroy the enemy’s spirit. But bombs, chemicals and killing only made the enemy stronger and smarter. One and a quarter million people in that land, more than the population of the capital of the empire, were killed during his time. He travelled to that distant land many times and tried to be nice to the people. Even that didn’t work very well. One time when he left Viet Nam he tried to say “Long Live Viet Nam” in the local language. His tones and accent was severely lacking and what he said was “Viet Nam wants to lie down”.
Robert liked good information. He felt like he failed to understand the enemy so he invented something called counter insurgency, a collection of programs intended to make the enemy like his people and the empire’s other allies. It didn’t work very well. The intelligence people around him couldn’t get the right information. Even if they found information they didn’t know how to separate truth from falsehood. They got into the habit of buying and trading information although they never actually went so far as to commercialize it on Wall Street. Even expensive information was not very reliable.
One time he said, war is “impossible” to win. He hinted that if his country had lost World War II the people who engineered the bombing in that war may have been prosecuted for genocidal destruction. But Robert, like the liberals of his day, persisted despite their troubled consciences. He did not resign his work or speak out except many years later when from hindsight he identified his doubts and mistakes. Many blamed him for defeat. Many more blamed him for overseeing the overwhelming outrage of that war.
His country would not be the same again. The nations of the earth would no longer trust the good intentions of his country’s people. When the war finally ended seven years after he stopped serving the emperor, his country was tired and spent. People did not utter the word, Viet Nam. No one said defeat, not even Robert, but almost everyone knew that they had been part of a dreadful epic fight where something had gone horribly wrong. And the people pushed their pain, confusion and guilt deep inside themselves where it festered and made them sick.
Robert McNamara died this week at age 93 and people are unsure how they should remember him. Some people used to think that the world had set a limit to war beyond which the empire dare not go because of the moral outrage surrounding Robert’s war. But now 40 years later it seems like those limits have not been learned or honoured. Others in the empire, those who wanted Robert to send more troops and bombs, believe that the innovations and organization that Robert brought to war, counter insurgency, military might, tricks of the intelligence community and electronic barriers to the enemy still can make things come out right.
Some people search their belief system, and their confidence in the great myths of the time wanes. In these days like in the days of Robert McNamara a new emperor has been crowned and the people want things to turn out better. They want to believe that they are a special righteous race who deserve prosperity. And the new emperor tells the people what they want to hear. Hope is mixed with warnings and forgetfulness.
The Emperor’s soldiers of the new age are turning to smarter bombs, better missiles, and more intelligent machines called robots. But these don’t bring victory. Others have turned to nonviolence, an old force but newly discovered by those who resisted Robert. Even non-violence is studied for ways it can be used or manipulated for imperial ends. Bits and pieces are borrowed but disembodied nonviolent tactics are lifeless without authentic love, a vision for transformation and conviction behind them.
The Emperor and his entourage two generations after Robert still can not find a way to explain to the world why a big powerful country would pound the life out of very poor people. The enemy is still described as a terrorist. But some people of the world have become wiser and they know the real meaning of terrorist. They use the term terrorist for those who operate the foxy new robotic weapons, missiles and smart bombs in the same breath as surprise attacks from below by people who build road side bombs and use hi-jacked air planes as missiles to destroy great buildings.
The people of the world remain restless about the empire. And at home, out of sight of the great weapons factories, polished floors of lobbyist offices, and defence contractors, all those who live from the fruits Robert’s systems, there are bands of street people and broken lives now made even worse by hard times.
Robert McNamara is about to be buried. An aging street person in Colombus, Ohio limps past the statue of another Emperor, William McKinley assassinated 102 years before JFK. The street person fought bravely for the empire, and remembers the day that Robert sent him off to battle. He curses and talking to no one in particular asks if the lessons from Robert’s time will be buried with him.
This morning here at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the day’s first practice run of the Reaper (technically referred to as the MQ-9 Reaper Hunter/Killer UAV) took off at 7:06 am and circled to practice landings and take offs every 18 minutes through the morning hours. I have joined a group this Holy Week to vigil and pray under the banner Ground the Drones. The training and piloting of the aircraft now carrying out their mission of information gathering and destruction in Afghanistan and Pakistan is headquartered here at Creech. Unlike the first Predator, an earlier unmanned aerial vehicle now widely used and armed with 2 Hellfire missiles, the Reaper is pressed into service because it is capable of carrying 14 Hellfire missiles.
Our group has enjoyed almost a cordial welcome from base workers, pilots, officers and enlisted people as they enter and depart the base. Many wave and occasionally the horns are tooted or the V sign is flashed in support. Between these signs of positive connection are challenges like the man yesterday who rolled down his window and shouted at me, “Do you have any idea how many American soldiers’ lives are saved every day by these aircraft?” I replied that I didn’t know and he advised me that the true number of saved service lives was 20 to 30 per day. I have not been able to confirm these numbers from any scientific source but I did remind him that the drone air crafts create enormous hostility in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq that will take generations to overcome. He was not impressed.
A chaplain from the base told a colleague who is vigiling here that disturbing dysfunctions are beginning to show up among officers and enlisted people who pilot and support these aircrafts. Flight crews of two, including a pilot and a technical support person called a sensor, sit here in rooms with several monitors and digitally guide these crafts as they move through their missions thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The pilot is experienced, but the sensor is a fresh from basic training and technical school.
These aircraft are capable of remaining airborne for extended periods of time. According to the International Online Defence Magazine, “The availability of high performance sensors and large capacity of precision guided weapons enable the new Predator to operate as an efficient ‘Hunter-Killer’ platform, seeking and engaging targets at high probability of success.” The Reaper also known as Predator II began flying missions in 2007. It was pressed into service according to Defence Magazine because it filled a gap, “between conflicting demands for payload,, altitude, speed and persistence.” Unlike the first generation Predator, the Reaper can fly at an altitude of 50,000 feet.
In the coming months and years the full implications of the US military transformation to digital warfare will become apparent. The outrage we now see in the countries where they are used and the signs of trauma now becoming visible among soldiers, designers and victims will signal a new era of brokenness and anger. Yesterday US Secretary of Defence Gates announced a 127% increase in funding for drones and other digitally guided military hardware. These crafts are much cheaper and believed to be less risky for military personnel than the more expensive weapons like the $350 million dollar F 122 which is to be cut.
Our local communities here in the US host the corporations that develop these new and smarter instruments of war. The workers who build them, the designers who create them and the day by day operators of these wily crafts worship in our churches.
The Indian Springs Motor Motel where our vigil group has rented a room for logistical support is packed solid with young marines, here for some last minute training in desert warfare and basic training in coordination with the new age of digital war. They are friendly, serious and some are worried. Yesterday morning two of them described their inner conflicts and ambivalence as they recovered from a hard night on the town. In a few days they will be off to the front lines.
About three hundred yards down the road from the main entrance to Creech there is a small building set aside for two week training programs for military chaplains who are about to depart for duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. We know that the military chaplain is one of the first to be contacted by soldiers who are disturbed and morally shaken by what they experience in combat. Every month dozens seek a way out and often encounter enormous difficulty and little support even from chaplains, all of whom come from religious traditions that teach love and upholding of life.
Like the chaplains, all of us who claim faith are invited to reach deep into the wealth of our traditions that are built on the ethics of love and discern what our responses can be in this new age of digital warfare. We will be further enabled to do this when our religious support structures – churches, denominations and institutions – also reach deep into the humanizing and peaceful resources of holy tradition. The desert here in Indian Springs, Nevada where native people once came for water to sustain life, is waiting for the transformation inherent in our faith.
Last week in this column I wrote about the need for a an independent inquiry into the bombing massacre reported in Azizabad near the western Afghan city of Herat. Over the last week international reports suggest that outrage in Afghanistan is building. Yesterday, in a reversal to the previous U. S. denials we learned that the U.S. Central Command will send a senior team headed by a general to investigate the charge that 90 people including children were killed on August 21, 2008 by U. S. bombs.
The treatment of civilians became a political and legal issue that was codified into Geneva conventions and legal code especially after World War II. This international standard is frequently tested and sometimes stretched beyond recognition as war unfolds. In combat, soldiers and officers regularly shoot or bomb first and hope that someone can fix it later. Soldiers are taught to break things and kill. This is what armies do. The nuanced work of relating to civilians – hearts and minds – is a thread of military thinking that shows up long after the breaking of things stops working.
Psychologists, social workers and anthropologists occasionally make a showing in the outworking of modern warfare as part of the intelligence gathering processes, prisoner interrogation, and care for wounded and tired soldiers. But the real warriors know the hard work is still combat and breaking things. When the faith community and human rights activists can sustain their energy and pressure, inquiries are called as an answer to that pressure. That is what we see now. It will be months before a report is issued.
Soon persons will be named to the military inquiry, at least if everything goes according to script. We will not learn a great deal about the results of this inquiry for several months. Its findings will be conditioned by the quality of its fact finding process, pressures from within the Central Command and the willingness of people with whom they speak to tell the truth, always a testy problem when investigators are armed and in uniform. It will also depend on the level of public interest and outrage here and in Afghanistan.
In the Abu Gharib scandal there was a military inquiry headed by a gutsy Major General named Taguba (a Major General has two stars) whose family was from the Philippines. His findings were tough and they shocked the world and may have even earned a little credibility for the Pentagon in some quarters. For his vigilant and patriotic effort in January 2006, Taguba was instructed by General Richard A. Cody, the Army’s Vice-Chief of Staff, to retire by January 2007. The general who leads the Azizabad inquiry is well versed on this recent history and knows that the inquiry work could be a career changer. He or she knows that doing inquiries is one of those auxiliary tasks the army has to do sometimes like social work, civil affairs and anthropology to negotiate the terrain of war in the modern world. He must not embarrass the military while constructing an answer for the public.
The Taguba inquiry’s tough findings were an exception to the script. More often military inquiries establish some of the facts and raise many more questions. The public is left guessing through months of writing and rewriting. Finally, if the story remains in the news long enough a report is issued and that document will point to mistakes, incompetence, or dereliction of duty on the part of soldiers, enlisted persons, but rarely of officers. When that occurs there may be mild punishment or military trials where guilt or innocence is determined by a military court. Military courts hate to hand down severe sentences because it wrecks havoc in morale among the rank and file.
As it stands now the best we can hope for is that Azizabad will remain in the news for some time to come. Without fresh material from people on the ground in Azizabad the reporting will largely be on the progress and process of the inquiry. In other words the reporting will be more about the American government and people’s perceptions and less about the victims. Last week in this column I proposed a serious and independent inquiry. I called for a team of Afghans and internationals who have experience and competence in these matters. This military inquiry makes it even more urgent that our proposed independent initiative be implemented and that the team be empowered to find the true facts and tell the story.
In our time the ballot box has become one of the most widely accepted instruments for nonviolent change. When applied fairly around our world we have a chance to help voters vote from a place of wisdom and vision for a more peaceable world. Smart bombs and dumb bombs can make enemies but so can the absence of truth. In this matter of Azizabad there is a chance that the truth will prevail if we have the courage to walk into the confusion of violence, listen and be informed by the voices at the point of impact who can help us build a structure of truth.
Afghanistan: Civilian Deaths From Airstrikes: Airstrikes Cause Public Backlash, Undermine Protection Efforts. Human Rights Watch Report Cover