Filed under: Detainees, Iraq, Militarism, Nonviolence, Philippines, Politics of Empire
This is Gene Stoltzfus’s last essay, completed on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, just before he headed out on his beloved motor-assisted bicycle on the first spring day of the year. He picked up his U.S. mail in International Falls, MN. Then on his return journey, less than a kilometer from home in Ft. Frances, ON, his heart stopped. Please feel free to leave comments after this post on his blogsite: https://peaceprobe.wordpress.com. For more background on Gene’s life and updates on his memorial services, see: http://www.cpt.org.
Gene Stoltzfus, 1940-2010, Presente!
–Phil Stoltzfus, Gene’s nephew
–Dorothy Friesen, Gene’s wife
I have talked to survivors of military interrogation around the world who at some point thought they would not live for another day. I never write about it in the U.S. and Canada because it seems so unbelievable and out of place in a world of sanitized shopping malls and super highways. When I retell their stories I notice that people here fidget. But interrogation processes are one way in which martyrs are created. Martyrs in the original sense are “witnesses to the truth,” with a deep commitment of conscience that sustains them through moments of cruelty and abuse.
Some people are killed during interrogation. They never get to tell the story themselves. So I have learned to listen to those who narrowly avoid interrogation’s brush with death. This might be the time that you will prefer not to read on. But if you stop here you will skip over an important part of living and dying that stretches around the world and touches the entire human family.
I spent two hours in Iraq talking to a 22-year-old student who was arrested in a house raid along with two of his brothers. Until the time of his capture he was relatively uninvolved with anything political, not an unusual story in the Iraq of 2003. After his capture by American military personnel he was not allowed to sleep for two days. After 48 hours the American GIs told him that he would be killed unless he told them where Saddam Hussein was hiding. He was continuously blindfolded. He was told that his brother, taken into custody at the same time, was just now being shot. In the distance he could hear a gun being fired. If he didn’t want to die, he must tell all. Then nearby he heard a gun being cocked and felt a revolver touching his head. He expected to die. There was more shouting from the soldiers and then silence.
“I believed I would die,” he told me. “And then after a long wait I felt my hand to be sure I was still alive.” His blindfold was temporarily removed and then he was marched off to one of Iraq’s prison camps where he met others who experienced similar beatings and moments of terror. He was released three months later because of persistent outside intervention – an advantage that many disappeared people do not have.
My time with him left me exhausted and jolted me to wonder how I would respond to interrogation. Would I make up a story? Would I lie? Would something I say implicate others? Would I respond with anger or physical struggle? Would I go quietly to my death as some martyrs are reported to have done? Would anyone know how I died?
After my talk with the unlikely martyr, the connection of this Muslim student to my own ancestors in 16th-century Europe fluttered in my mind. Did the stories I read in my youth about the Anabaptist martyrs prepare me for this? Death by burning or drowning is now little practiced, but current authorities still believe that truth can be accessed by means of brutality. The pattern of torture used for their interrogation blended now with the people I was meeting. The Anabaptist stories recorded in the Martyrs Mirror (subtitled “The Bloody Theatre of the Anabaptists or Defenseless Christians who suffered and were slain from the time of Christ until the year AD 1660) are part of the continuous tapestry of state-sponsored cruelty reaching to our very own day.
In the late 1970s I worked in the Philippines. One day I was invited to meet a pastor and former political prisoner. The Marcos dictatorship had sent its military and paramilitary to his community and their tactics were designed to control popular discontent through cruelty, terror, domination, killing and confiscation of property. The pastor felt bound by his convictions to do what was possible to protect the people of his church. He was arrested and interrogated for weeks. His body was spent. Finally he was encased in a blindfold and told he would be killed. He felt the barrel of a revolver that touched the temple of his head and rested there for a time while his interrogator demanded that he give names of the people with whom he worked. “I was silent because I couldn’t think any more,” he told me.
“Were you afraid you would endanger others?” I asked. “Of course I was worried that what I said would implicate others but when the gun was put to my head I just expected to die. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I even thought about being a pastor but that didn’t seem very important in the moment. I was ready to die. I just told them to get it over with. During those days I thought about the martyrs. The interrogator didn’t pull the trigger. I don’t know why.”
I felt my gut twitch after the pastor described the near-death moment. Was there anything I could say or do? Anything healing? Anything personal? The pastor, like the Iraqi student 25 years later, only requested that I tell the world what happened to him. That was enough.
Accounts like these stories of people living on borrowed time reach back centuries to pre-Roman times and show me that the impulse to domination is still alive in our as-yet-uncivilized reptilian brain stem. In our time the word “martyr” has morphed from its root meaning of “witness to the truth” to a description of someone who dies for his or her beliefs. The Greeks and early Christians who used the term understood death to be a possible outcome of the path towards truth and light. Eventually “martyr” referred exclusively to those who died for their belief. Those who began as witnesses to truth became martyrs at the time of death. For the Muslim, shahada (martyrdom) also springs from the internal struggle that results in the witness to truth. Both religious traditions have departed from the core understanding of martyrdom in times of political conflict and triumphalism.
From where did my childhood curiosity arise to steal into my father’s study to read about the martyrs? Those drawings of torture and burning bodies awakened wonder within me. In one of my early return journeys to North America from the lands of torture – before I understood that torture techniques had their home here – I was introduced to a new psychological disease called the martyr complex – seeking persecution to fulfill an inward need. Had I been the unwitting recipient of this disease? Or was the use of the term “martyr complex” the work of a psychologist who had never met a torture victim or known the honored path to witness practiced by martyrs?
Church buildings pay tribute to martyrs, including long-forgotten soldiers who died in distant lands to protect the nation or empire. Their deeds are celebrated and interwoven with patriotism. I have visited churches in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Anabaptist martyrs, where they place the Martyrs Mirror on their altars before the service of worship and return it to a locked closet after the service. I once inquired about the influence of the book of martyrs in the life of worshipers and was told that, “Most of us have no idea about the stories in that book. It’s from another time.”
Why are soldiers and interrogators still trained in the craft of torture? Can moral outrage and attempts to protect the prisoner change things? Why do Christian crusaders or Muslim suicide bombers slip into patterns of domination that kill and destroy in a manner that cannot possibly reveal truth? Can respect for and veneration of martyrs draw us closer to the truth when the patterns of our lives are so remote from the authentic truth-seeking represented in martyrs?
Genuine martyrs appear when people believe that their witness on earth is connected to the whole of the universe. Martyrs are not inclined to draw attention to themselves, but their path can draw people to the glory and faith of a vision. Martyrs have all the foibles of the rest of us. Some may not deserve the label. In our human family great movements that push us to transcend boundaries with visions of hope produce martyrs. But organizations and movements become emasculated and ineffectual when they protect themselves too much from the risk of bold witness. On the other hand, they also undercut themselves when they slide into violence against others in order to try to control the outcome of their vision. We have the challenge of incarnating a blend of vulnerability and boldness.
The test of martyrdom is whether that particular witness to the truth helps to support and sustain the community’s commitment to a full-bodied vision of peace and justice. The martyrs are present with us and may be more powerful for their witness in death than they ever could have been in life.
Filed under: Nonviolent defence, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, drones, military contractors, military draft, peace, peacemaker teams, Taliban
In April 2004 the world was awakened to a horrible scene in Fallujah, Iraq. Insurgents had ambushed a vehicle carrying civilian U. S. Government mercenary contractors and killed them. Two of the burned corpses were hung from a bridge in downtown Fallujah where they dangled for several days as photos of them flashed around the world. Commentators immediately compared the Fallujah footage to that of dead American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. The victims in Somalia were American soldiers. The victims in Fallujah were American mercenaries employed by Blackwater Inc., renamed XE in 2007.
In this century we are entering a new era of mercenary warriors. From the strategic point of view, modern mercenaries fulfill a crucial requirement. They provide logistical and selected security support for invading forces in the field, and in addition on the political level they allow policy makers to engage in off-the-record, arms length and clandestine activities on the margins and outside of the law. This was formally called “plausible deniability”. In the recent past mercenary soldiers for profit have also served in Bosnia, Liberia, Pakistan, and Rwanda. They have guarded the Afghan President Karzai and built detention facilities in Guantanamo and elsewhere. On February 10, 2010, the Iraqi government ordered all Blackwater Inc. including subsidiaries out of Iraq or risk arrest. The order includes anyone involved with Blackwater in the deadly shooting incident in 2007 when they killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
Due to a hostile local population the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan have required heavily armed guards, escorts, and sharp shooters to provide logistical protection for the millions of tons of military supplies. It is dangerous work and requires people who have been trained. The contractors, some from third world nations like the Philippines also staff the kitchens, the PXs (tax-free general stores for soldiers that offers rock bottom prices) and provide thousands of other support activities. Most mercenary contractors who carry out security related functions are former military. The Pentagon argues that despite lavish salaries, using military contractors is cheaper than training soldiers for the work. What is not said is that if the American armed forces were to carry out all these tasks the U. S. Government would have to implement a military draft which would be unpopular and set up the sons and perhaps the daughters of the privileged classes for the danger and inconvenience of military service.
Paramilitary units in Colombia, Philippines, Haiti, Afghanistan and many countries around the world perform similar functions to what private sector mercenary contractors do for the U. S forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. U. S. Operatives sometimes together with mercenaries have been involved in strategy formation, training, and sometimes in financing usually in conjunction with local government military groups. Even the Taliban got its start in the early 1980s as a paramilitary project developed and financed by U. S. personnel in conjunction with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Like the mercenary soldiers of Blackwater, virtually all of whom have had careers in the U. S. military, the Taliban grew up fighting and to this day this is the only profession they really know.
The Taliban and Colombian thug-like paramilitary units function at the margin of traditional customary law. Modern mercenary contractors often also function outside constitutional law. Both blur the lines between judicial process and police activity arrogating to themselves life and death decisions that any responsible society must legislate. These soldiers know the law of the gun. When or if constitutional government is restored they seek a place within the institutions of security work, but rarely leave their habits of threat, killing and improvised seat-of-the-pants law making. Former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld insisted that war by mercenary contract is cheaper but his calculations failed to include the re-education of the first generation of Taliban fighters back into civilian life from combat with the Soviets in the 1980s. Nor did his calculations include the cost to the American people of the expansion of its imperial culture of security.
Mercenaries working under private corporations also have carried out specialized tasks for the CIA including the loading of Hellfire missiles onto Predator drones. They have engaged in search, capture or assassination of enemy leaders in areas like the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officially, the Blackwater mercenaries killed in the 2004 events in Fallujah were in the line of duty “to protect food shipments.” However there is apparently some doubt if there were in fact any food shipments on that day.
In 2003-4 I made several trips to Iraq. At the close of the first trip, an Iraqi with whom I had consulted extensively, rushed to the CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) apartment. He insisted that I must meet with some very important people for an extended lunch 16 hours before I was to depart from Baghdad. Our CPT schedule was piled full of planning and projects. I didn’t want to go to the dinner because I suspected I was about to be the recipient of a mountainous request that CPT had neither the personnel nor the money to respond to. But I agreed to go with other CPTers. The dinner turned out to be a gathering of representatives from some of the senior families of Fallujah. I figured it out about two thirds of the way through introductions. The entire group was made up of leaders. I waited knowing that they wanted something.
They asked about CPT. I knew that they already knew a great deal because two persons in the circle had spent extended time with us. We explained our decision to focus on detainees, house raids and the rights of Iraqis. We gave two examples of cases we were working on. We were frank about our limitations. There was some silence, and then one person asked if we ever do anything outside of Baghdad. We said, “Yes.” Have you every been in Fallujah? “Yes we have visited Fallujah.” I thought I knew where the conversation was going so I didn’t ask anything further so that the conversation about Fallujah could not develop. I didn’t want them to ask if we could put a team in Fallujah. They persisted with broad hints about the needs of Fallujah.
As I left that meeting, the spokesperson of the group took me aside. He identified himself as a senior police officer in Iraq. As he prepared to say something to me his cell phone rang. It was his counterpart, a U. S. Colonel. I waited and tried not to listen to what was being said. The call ended. He looked at me and said, “The U. S. Forces detained my nephew some weeks ago. We can’t find him. Could CPT help us find my nephew?” I said we could try although our team was already over committed. We tried but we were not successful. I don’t know if his nephew survived detention. I don’t know if the police officer survived the last seven years.
This encounter took place six months before the first battle of Fallujah which followed the killing of Blackwater contractors. As I write this I wonder how many of the people in that circle on that day are still alive, still live in Iraq or have any normalcy in their lives. I wonder if an unarmed peacemaking team in Fallujah might have made a real difference to the U. S. strategy, leading not once but twice to the destruction of that city. I believe trained and disciplined unarmed peacemakers in good numbers could have done without arms what armed soldiers could not accomplish — protect the people of Fallujah.
The story does not have to end here. We are not condemned to surviving in a world where the law is decimated by successive generations of paramilitaries. But the answer will probably not come from the Pentagon nor from the White House which may not be able to escape the grasp of a citizenry whose houses of worship celebrate the institutions of violent intervention. Congressional efforts to rein in support for paramilitaries or mercenaries have been timid. We will know if unarmed spiritually based peacemakers can do this when we become even more resolved to create a corp that can be in the Fallujahs that are waiting to happen.
Every one of us is impacted by a dominant culture that insists that military or police force will make things right. Every day that culture tells us that dirty tricks usually done in secret are required for our survival. After all, it’s argued, someone has to do this dirty work. It’s called a noble work and the Blackwater mercenaries are required for the work. It will take an expanding world wide but grass roots culture reaching beyond national borders to fashion a body of Christian peacemakers to be an effective power to block the guns and be part of transforming each impending tragedy of war. Little by little there will be change.
Filed under: Digital/Star War, Nonviolence, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, conscience, counter insurgency, digital war, drones, Nonviolence, pacifism, robotic warfare
Last week Predator drones attacked in Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan and mistakenly killed civilians. We don’t know how many. The incidents are another warning like the messages of protest that Pakistanis have been trying to send Americans for the past few years. Despite the much ballyhooed precision of these air crafts and their weapons, they still kill civilians because corroborating intelligence on the ground is unreliable and this leads to flawed targeting.
The protection of civilians has been a most basic plank of all notions of just war for many nations going back 1600 years. The slide towards increased killing of civilians in war by national armies and as a corollary, the use of civilians as human shields is often overlooked. Tactics arising from the use of robotic weapons of war may increase the slide of disrespect for civilian life in war. This trend that brought us civilian casualties from Dresden to Hiroshima, from IEDs in Iraq to drones in Pakistan reflect the broad lines of increased disrespect for civilian life into the 21st century warfare in regular and insurgent armies.
During the final week of Lent this year I expect to travel to Las Vegas and to Creech AFB 45 miles northwest where the Predator pilots and their staffs are trained and local control rooms guide the planes in the 24 hour surveillance and attack assignments over Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. As I go I know that the Predators are just a tip of a vast array of robotic technology now being developed to make modern warfare “safer” for soldiers but more lethal for civilians.
The Predator and their Hellfire missiles are the air weapon delivery system of choice right now but maybe not for long. In the future the work of disarmament will be made even more complicated by robotic instruments of all kinds. The U. S. Army is working with universities to build micro fliers, tiny bird like flyers to be used for intelligence gathering and surveillance through its Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Alliance. Joseph Mait, manager of the Army Research Laboratory says,“ Our long-term goal is to develop technologies that can produce a map of a building interior or detect bombs,”
Big unmanned Predator like aircraft have lots of problems. They are still expensive to build, maintain and fly although they are much cheaper than the earlier generations of bombers. They can also be easy to spot. In Pakistan I was told that children in remote areas have games they play called, “spotting the Predators”. Shrinking those vehicles to a few ounces will not only change the children’s games but will give an up-close view of who is doing what, when and where.
According to Discovery Magazine, Haibo Dong of Wright State University is working on a four-winged robot, the Wright Dragon flyer. The designers complain that it is more difficult to create than a two-winged flapping system but promises more speed and manoeuverability. Dong expects to have a prototype, about the size of a real dragon-fly, completed this year. “This small craft could perform surveillance, environmental monitoring and search and rescue,” he says.
At Harvard University roboticist Robert Wood is working on mechanical bee-like instruments to create a colony of RoboBees. These swarming robots will incorporate optical and chemical sensors as well as communications systems to make autonomous flight decisions and to coordinate with colony members during tasks such as searching for objects or people.
Robotic technology is already heavily used in all of America’s wars. As many as 4000 robots are already on the ground in Iraq. Tiny information gathering devices are complemented by robotic instruments designed to identify and disarm bombs. With ground mobility they can enter into dangerous settings where enemy soldiers are heavily armed. Some of these instruments are being adapted for or are already used for in the homeland security. Their phenomenal growth will change forever the arms race, the balance of power(s) in the world and the nature of police work.
The ethical implications of this revolution of arms, force and information gathering are daunting.
1. The development, deployment, and use of the instruments of robotic warfare are being carried out in at least 40 countries around the world. A robotic arms race is already under way. There are few if any forums that address the implications of this race for the future of life on earth and for the quality of life-like basic freedoms.
2. As the robotic arms movement unfolds, the possibility for back yard development of instruments of destruction reaches to the limits of imagination. Violent video games were just a beginning although they may have helped dull our sensitivity and create a culture of acceptance. The IED (improvised explosive device) an interim instrument for defence and attack for insurgents will have been just the first generation of a long line of sophisticated adaptation of off the shelf technology for killing. The distance between the safe researcher silently working in a sanitized laboratory and the field practitioner is narrowing. The absence of meaningful work for so many in this generation may become the void where new waves of imagination in the service of violence are unleashed. Nonviolence movements will match this challenge only with keen understanding of the implications of robotic developments and solid healthy organizations.
3. As civilian casualties grow, persons who believe that life is sacred are faced with enormous new challenges. Peacemakers and human rights workers have only begun to grasp the implications of robotic warfare. People on the ground in Pakistan told me that just 10% of the victims of Predator drone bombings are insurgent combatants. Ninety percent are civilians. The Pakistan Security Monitor, a project of the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University disputes these figures. I have travelled in Pakistan and have heard the estimated 90% figure from persons with access to the areas of impact with accompanying stories of travail and death to women and children..
For Christian pacifists the reach of research, development, and manufacture dips into every one of our communities. We are now faced with new challenges to our convictions about not killing. Unless we face those oncoming ambiguities without falling into legalism, the convictions will morph into fluffy cotton decoration over a core of words that are not backed up with action.
4. As we enter this new frontier of ethics and robotic warfare, our methods of witness for a nonviolent way will be forced to adapt. The centralization of the development and manufacture of killer instruments into fewer and fewer corporations and selected political powers is over. The time is here when ordinary people can go to the local computer store or amazon.com to order component parts for assembling a weapon. What will we do if the computer store owner even goes to our church or parish? What will we do if people in our church own stock in companies that produce the components? We won’t have to go to Washington or to some well-mannered legislative office to begin the discussion and to engage in public witness.
We are now swimming in the culture of robotics, a technology that is being adapted every day by nations around the world to myriad roles that include security and killing. We can watch in admiration or distaste as the magic is unveiled . In periods of transition and unfolding violence it takes a little time for our consciences to be awakened and the gift of stubborn resistance to become clear. The time has arrived.
Filed under: Politics of Empire | Tags: Bible, community, drones, empire, Israel, Jesus, massacre, politics, terrorism
In this final week of the year, Christians who follow the church calendar remember that children were massacred at Bethlehem. Life stopped. We are always shocked whenever life stops because of events like this, 9/11 or US drone bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The surviving victims and the onlookers stammer as they ask, how this could happen? How can people do this?
From what I know about Herod who ruled when Jesus was born the story of the murder of children is entirely plausible. As a politician and Roman vassal Herod was caught between the demands of an empire and his unpopular regime at home. His dynasty ruled because of Roman blessing not because of the grace of God. The local Jewish population distrusted his intentions and had grown restive over his taxation policies and cruelty. In foreign affairs he cleverly used a combination of diplomacy and good guess-work to convince Roman rulers, sometimes in the midst of their own power struggles, that he was reliable and could deliver strong political rule that would not cause the empire headaches. That is what empires want from their vassals.
Herod’s rule included territory roughly equivalent to ancient Israel. It brought him power but little favour with the people who disliked his decadent life style. Herod claimed to be a Jew but his mother was Arab. Herod’s tenuous claim to Jewish faith was further eroded by his compliance with Rome’s public religion, emperor worship in shrines created at his monumental construction sites. These facts fed unrest.
The gossip that a new King of the Jews had been born was a mortal threat to Herod’s rule. Thirty some years before Herod had been elected to that office by the Roman Senate after angling for the position in the midst of Caesar Augustus’ rise to total power. He may have known of this new threat through his police, palace guards or intelligence service before the arrival of the wise men. However, a diplomatic call by foreign dignitaries called Magi with access to mystery knowledge from the stars alerted him that there may be serious trouble ahead and still manageable ways to crush another impending rebellion. Always on the look out for a coup or usurper of royal office Herod, like his contemporaries today had an insatiable appetite for intelligence information and its first cousin, popular gossip sometimes called news. Information meant that suspects disappeared often for good.
To be safe the dignitaries slipped away by “another road” without checking in with King Herod after they visited the new King in swaddling clothes. This act of avoidance, perhaps rude in the context of routine diplomatic niceties awakened Herod’s deeper suspicions, and the action he settled on was the killing of all children born in the most recent two years in or near Bethlehem, the site of the usurper’s birth. A political killing of infants was Herod’s preferred option given the restive and rebellious nature of public opinion. There was precedent for the use of infanticide as an instrument of national security in the history of the Jewish life in Egypt and in other nations.
This sequence of stories in Matthew’s first two chapters includes five dreams and a message from the stars. In times like these when life and death nudge one another, access to all the insights available to people seeking to do the right thing is urgently required. The break through of wisdom from the unconscious were gifts that illuminated the journey of escape to Egypt and provide the prologue for Matthew’s story of the community of liberation.
Politicians caught in dilemmas that threaten their regime resort to brutality. The killings of all children under the age of 2 was a fear based warning to the population, no regime change, not now, not ever. Looking tough in the midst of unpopularity is essential . Despite the collateral damage, death to mostly innocent children meant that the gains from a limited massacre, only the area of Bethlehem, outweighed the risks. There was no time to consider the long term effects on political culture.
Behind this story recorded in Matthew but not mentioned was the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. Every nation and principality in the Empire understood the nonnegotiable demands made of vassals, demands for stability, reliability, ideological harmony and access to material or human resources when the need arose. The empire had financial and military limits and local rulers were left to their own devices including secret police to create at least the fiction of security and prosperity. The empire preferred to have its local strong man to carry out the heavy lifting of domination and cruelty to manufacture order. The interrogation, torture, and killing of enemies, often called terrorists is the work for lesser tetrarchs. The empire’s troops were only sent in as a last resort. The imperial heartland was reserved for pomp and endless repeating of the myths of its glory.
But there is another thread in this story of empire, client states, vassals, intrigue, and massacre. It involved the parents of the King baby, who listened the their dreams. It involved unexpected partners who offered protection and generous help along the way. The story of escape, return and new life is happening today too for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear and wise instincts to recognize the signs of the times.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, corruption, counter insurgency, military contractors
Corruption is in the news again always with tough talk about what the next phase of US troops in Afghanistan will look like. As a young volunteer in Viet Nam in the early 1960s I was assigned to work with a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) sponsored program called hamlet education. At the time I thought that education was always good and it never occurred to me that I might be part of a larger plan to entice the Vietnamese government to embrace the U. S. Government agenda. As I got into my work I was warned of corruption. American government advisors told me that money for the program was lifted all along the way from Saigon ministry people, through province leaders and on down to district governments that administered the disbursement of money. I was never told what to do about it. I had not enrolled in a class that might have been called History of Corruption in the Western World although given the soiled history of US intervention in so many places over the last 40 years it should have been a required course.
At the local level where I worked, the district chiefs contracted to have the schools built. Vietnamese and Americans warned me that the contractors would cut corners by using insufficient amounts of cement and lower quality construction materials. According to these same people contractors were required to kick back a certain percentage to the district chief. It took forever for the paperwork and the money to work its way through the system down to the hamlets. So American advisors along the way were encouraged to pressure, nice talk, and occasionally throw a fit to get hamlet education and all the other counter insurgency programs moving. Eventually I figured out that I was the final link in that pressure process.
District chiefs told me that the blame for the slow pace of implementation order was due to the Viet Cong, or the general slowness of the Vietnamese way. Eventually schools were built, dedicated and opened. There were plenty of children. Occasionally when I visited schools there was propaganda on the school walls condemning American imperialists. I learned that when those signs appeared the schools usually closed shortly thereafter and if I went to those villages people continued to be polite and there was still tea to drink but the villagers didn’t want to talk about the school.
As the military build up proceeded I noticed that the US military civic action people took great interest in schools, loved to paint schools, and give support to projects. Like me they also believed that schools would bring a better future As security broke down such projects lost their luster. But many of the programs continued to be carried on the Saigon government books and something called corruption grew as the distance from money to effective implementation became more remote, often impossible, due to war. This led to more accusations of corruption and an influx of more American advisors always with their generous hardship pay. Like me they arrived generally underqualified in the local arts of communication, culture and corruption. Back in the White House situation room war councils were a weekly affair.
President Obama has promised to announce his Afghanistan decision next week in time for Christmas. West Point, his choice of location does not suggest to me that he or his advisors have learned what I thought I learned in Viet Nam about how war and corruption embrace each other usually with the language of economic improvement and development for the people. I can hear the generals and other senior advisors now in the situation room fine tune the use of new miracle weapons and at the same time integrating Canada, NATO and whoever else into the strategy of targeting the foe. And then some highly medaled general or civilian security advisor will ask about how the counter insurgency plans are coming along. Somebody pontificates about “the people” and someone else describes a conversation they had in Afghanistan recently. Maybe there is a silence in the room and then someone from USAID, the civilian counter insurgency agency, reports on how many new people have been sent in to advise and track roads, schools and other development work. Overall the mood is sombre and no one wants to say the strategy won’t work. Someone asks about negotiations. But that discussion doesn’t seem to go anywhere either. One of the elephants in the room reminds the solemn gathering how embarrassing it is to give money to a government that is corrupt so someone suggests that we have to get the press to cover a success story.
Corruption usually gets worse in war because people’s survival instinct tell them to think short term and clutch at every opportunity for golden nuggets, money, or anything that has value and can be traded. I doubt that the $500 dollar per day civilian advisors will stamp out survival corruption. I have not heard evidence that these pricy civilians are any more prepared with communication, culture and corruption medicine than I was 45 years ago. An Afghan’s monthly salary is less than half the amount a U. S. aid worker earns each day. It costs about $500,000 per year to put these pricy civilian advisors and corruption doctors in the field, including the cost of their housing, transport, and security (usually provided by even higher paid contractors). A soldier costs the American people about one million dollars per year.
But the suspension of legal and moral strictures so evident in conditions of war has its first cousins in New York and Washington where there isn’t a war. We don’t use the word corruption unless it’s a Ponzi scheme. By keeping the boundaries of the law as wide as possible in order to encourage free enterprise our rule of law here is respected even though people, corporations and syndicates plunder one another and feed on those who are not organized to escape the insatiable grasp for more money. It is this kind of condition that incensed the Old Testament prophets when they warned Israel about the fate that awaits the greedy nation. Corruption doctors are needed right here in North America, not the $500 a day kind that are sent to Afghanistan but the kind who have demonstrated with a life of bold words, or prudent action that the future is worth protecting. Preachers and modern day prophets whose thought and wisdom have tasted from the well of sustainable economy can help. Listeners and readers should, however, beware of the false gospel of perpetual prosperity celebrated in so many religious and economic holy places like some mega churches and Wall Street.
In Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan the word corruption is used when sharply dressed foreign advisors, who should know better, need someone to blame. Let’s face it, corruption is universal. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, roman senator, and historian who prosecuted a proconsul of Africa on corruption in the first century said “The more corrupt the state, the more laws.” We still have a habit of passing more laws to build a moat around corruption and deal with lapses in moral judgement.
The terms of the debate on Afghanistan are in need of change from corruption and blaming to respect and honest talk. Foreign power and might will not change the outcome in Afghanistan although generous doses of explosives from outside will certainly lengthen the war. The challenge of American powerlessness in Afghanistan now faces President Obama and his advisors. If he reaches back to his time as a community organizer he will get some hints of how to address the nation and the world when faced with powerlessness. Community organizers don’t take on campaigns that are not good for the community. A healthy campaign reaches out with the possibility of real gain for all the participants
Foreign fighters in Afghanistan from the Muslim or the Christian world can ill afford to pay for this war. This chapter of warfare can be closed by loading up the trains, trucks, and air planes with all existing and spent war equipment. By bringing instruments of war past and present, mines, spent tanks, everything, home for recycling it will not be used by anyone in Afghanistan or elsewhere to extend anyone’s conflict. Then the world can turn its attention to binding up the wounds from broken relationships, the tangle of terrorism, and building a world that is incorruptible.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Politics of Empire, Taliban | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, counter insurgency, military contractors
This week General McChrystal’s review of what is needed in Afghanistan began to make its rounds. Although the unclassified “multi disciplinary assessment” might not titillate your breakfast musings, it sets the tone for the coming debate and if we want to engage in the discussion, we better know what it says. In a word the report calls for the ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force which includes NATO and other forces to change its internal culture by getting closer to the people, protecting the people, and tightening up its command structure while it decentralizes in order to respond to local conditions. It repeatedly calls for the mission to be properly “resourced” which is Pentagonese for more troops and it urges more ability in language and cultural skills to relate to local people.
The memo reminds the Afghan government that it needs to clean up its act. It alludes to the mantra of corruption as if this is a new characteristic of a “counter insurgency” situation. The pages note that the abuse of power and privilege by the Afghan government has not helped. However it does not remind its readers that corruption, abuse of power and opportunism, also standard form in US politics at home, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, are common themes in war and particularly where there are insurgencies.
The report is silent about religion or traditional communal decision making of Afghan village culture as a component for healing – well the memo actually does not use the term healing. It makes no mention of gender roles or how traditional justice processes work among the various ethnic groups. It vaguely acknowledges the possibility of selective negotiations and uses the term reconciliation. But the central theme is a call for what it names as a new strategy and warns that without it and proper resourcing things can get worse, much worse.
The memo lets us know that “conventional warfare culture is part of the problem”. Immediately I thought of the US Air Force or the newly conventionalized robotic war machine at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Would these projects and units like them that do so much damage to relationships, trust and long term confidence be shut down? I tried to conjure up images of how a marine unit might look, devoid of its Hummers, trucks, and helicopters and ready access to a plethora of communication devices just a few of the elements of the conventional warfare culture that I know.
It’s a stretch to think of a marine unit “tasked” to build relations with the local people, sitting in circles of elders, sharing food, brain storming about what works and what doesn’t work. I imagine those marines travelling by bicycle, without arms, uniform or even candy to give out. Maybe a sign somewhere on the bicycle would say “I am an unarmed soldier and I am here to help”. I thought that General McChrystal should know that imaginations like the one implanted within me creates images for an army that could embrace serious internal cultural change.
For the record, McChrystal should be reminded that beginning one century ago an unarmed nonviolent army of 100,000 like the marine unit I described once existed among the tribesmen like the people McChrystal’s army now fights in border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Badshah Khan, its leader, was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 1988. The cultural changes advocated here are not as remote to Afghanistan as conventional thinking might consider them to be. I know that General McChrystal would still be worried about the security of his unarmed troops. Should he be worried? Yes! Would ISAF death rate be worse than it is presently with all the armour, the weapons, and airplanes removed.. Probably not!
A bonus to a major cultural shift towards simplicity for foreign forces in Afghanistan may be its attractiveness back home in a society that is rooted in notions of sacrifice. For conservatives it would mean lowering the costs. For liberals it would appeal to notions of really helping rather than breaking things. Going low budget with constant self reflection has been tried by private groups and it works. Implementation will require a different kind of consultant, contractor, trainer and analyst. The new strategy could silently eliminate all the armed mercenaries that repeatedly sully the image of our country. Everybody would win with this strategy, Afghans, Americans, conservatives, liberals even the Pakistani and Iranian neighbours who would feel less pressure to keep up in terms of missiles and military hardware. Successful implementation of the new culture of the International Security Assistance Force would clearly mean less troops, not more, as the values behind the new culture take root.
Another suggestion that I liked in this memo is the call for people to think. To break through the fog of the more than 130 military acronyms in this document does require thinking. But why not take General McChrystal at his word and think more deeply with him about what might work. Neither President Obama nor his White House staff are particularly experienced in Afghanistan although some of them have done unarmed community projects and that is a plus if they take time to remember how they connected with communities.
One of the ways in which the Afghanistan effort has been “under resourced” for the last 8 years is thinking. I don’t presume to have all the answers about security. However I believe that the people I have known and worked with in villages, provincial towns, and cities across this world including Afghanistan really have useful thoughts and solutions. The problem is that no one can get to them because the contractors, the Hummers, the drones and the conventional warfare culture gets in the way. It’s a big deal to change a culture. General McChrystal will need a lot of support because he will get mean opposition if he in fact survives long enough to work out a vision.
The memo is reaching for something that may have a moral equivalency to conventional war. Any soldier who resolves to find a way for change outside the standard instruments of war is stepping into testy waters. That is why he or she thinks more troops are needed just in case nothing works. The memo fails to show how more resources will bring the mission closer to success. Military thinkers like the rest of us stumble around when we know we must work outside the box. If more resources just brings escalation and deepens the resolve of both sides for victory using terrorism if necessary, the mission will fail. If this process of culture change can turn us to deeper things, like how justice is accomplished, the conversation before us may help.
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?