Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, War and Poverty | Tags: Afghanistan, anti American, conscience, Muslim, pacifism, peace
Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter was caught in an impossible matrix of shame. As a Muslim he was asked to support the killing his fellow religionists. Islam forbids the killing of other Muslims. As a military man he was belittled and perhaps harassed for his growing Muslim convictions. Good soldiers do not identify with the enemy. Every day as a counselor and psychiatrist he was reminded of his impossible dilemma as he listened to the dreadful stories of broken soldiers caught in the vise of post traumatic stress syndrome disorder (PTSD). Their stories of fatalism, guilt, suicide and other life changing experience in combat killing reminded him that he was a part of the system that kills other Muslims. He was caught between two shaming systems and there was no place to turn for help.
The military does not allow for selective conscientious objection.* Soldiers, including officers of all religious and secular persuasions who try to extricate themselves from previous military commitments are belittled. And the bureaucratic path leads through months and even years of lonely and tortured hearings, appeals, reviews and rejections. Some go absent without leave (AWOL) only to grow exhausted over time with their semi underground life and loss of hope for a normal life. They may turn themselves in or even join the ranks of the homeless. In previous wars they were welcomed in countries like Canada where they took up new lives. Canada is no longer welcoming to objectors.
Objectors who are in uniform tend to act out of the deepest instincts of conscience that is available to them, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or humanist. Major Nidal Hasan is one in a long line of soldiers whose deep inner conviction led them to refuse to cooperate. He did it in a more destructive and dramatic form. If you want to meet other objectors you can visit Under the Hood Café outside of Fort Hood where G Is with objections to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan congregate. I met six of them in a recent trip to Austin. All of them described thoughts of suicide, anguish over their desire to get their lives back, frustration at the way the military refused to believe them when they objected, and counselling sessions with people like Major Hasan that helped little. In our conversations the group of objectors thoughtfully contemplated various versions of objection, selective conscientious objection (not recognized by the military), complete pacifism (recognized by the military) or continuing to run. However in the confusion of their stress, I was not sure if one or more of them could turn to violence directed at their families or even aimed at the military.
Like Major Hasan the non Muslim objectors were people who believed what the military recruiters who are required to meet quota, told them. They thought they would get money for advanced education. They believed that they were going to fight and kill persons who may terrorize America. They believed what they would do was right, good, honourable and even heroic. The reality and innocence of the people they have now killed overwhelms them. Their consciences were stirred by a more deeply rooted universal respect for human life. When they acted on their conscience it was interpreted as disloyalty to the military and to their nation and their lives are not celebrated like the media reverently acknowledges those who die in America’s wars.
Despite the macho cultures from which these non Muslim soldiers came their bodies and minds are now closed down to more war. For the young soldiers I met in Austin TX, massive killings by air, sea and land were enthusiastically approved and roundly supported by their superiors and political leaders. Each soldier I talked with has his or her own story of willy nilly, random shootings that are never investigated. In Major Hasan’s culture, suicide attacks are encouraged as the way to leave a mark or discourage the enemy. The dominant thread in both cultures is the ancient model, an eye for an eye and both have teachings about just war that are ignored by commanders, soldiers and the religious teachers who back them up.
The lessons from the Fort Hood shootings is one that all of us must hear and believe. There are great numbers of people returning from the modern battle field who are wounded in spirit. The belief in a system that threatens, shocks and kills does not bring real security. We all need to listen to people like Major Hasan and his colleagues at Fort Hood and help them find a way out of the system that is killing them and others. One way out for them would be a system of selective conscientious objection. We can press for that.
We can also push for a democracy that provides as many rewards for unarmed warriors, peacemakers and service workers outside the military as those promised to military recruits. Maybe we should even advocate a draft that recruits the sons and daughters of the ruling class first. In the long term we need to press for a dramatic cut in the military budget. And for all of us who dream of the day when a culture of peacefulness without killing might prevail we need to get serious about all kinds of experiments that build a culture where conflicts are settled without weapons.
*Major Nidal Hasan June 2007 notes for speech at Walter Reed Hospital advocating option for Consciencious Objector status for Muslims in the conclusion.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Digital/Star War, War and Poverty | Tags: counter insurgency, drones, Human Terrain Teams, Pukhtoon, revenge, Swat Valley
“A Pukhtoon never forsakes revenge.”
“A stone of Pukhtoon (enmity) does not rot in water.”
“A Pukhtoon enmity is like fire of a dunghill.”
“May Allah spare you a Pukhtoon’s Anger.”
“If a Pukhtoon takes his revenge after a hundred years, it is still too soon.”
– Proverbs of the Afghan and Pakistani Pukhtoon people
“The Pukhtoon loves fighting but hates to be a soldier; loves music but has a great contempt for the musician; is kind and gentle but hates to show it; loves his new rifle and his old wife; is hot-blooded and hot-headed; is poor and proud with strange principles; might be a loving friend or a deadly enemy; in general, he is very simple but very complicated in his simplicity.”
Ghani Khan: Pukhtoon poet and philosopher
* * *
The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan could drag on for 10, 20 or more years. Viewed from the stance of many Pukhtoon villagers these wars have already lasted almost 30 years since the arrival of Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Eventually the wars will end because outside forces including NATO, the US, and national armies of Afghanistan and Pakistan that are viewed as trouble makers or hostile interlopers will go away due to exhaustion. The wars may also end because of negotiations with villages, or some of the 60 tribes which are groups of villages that share specific customs, and in some cases larger coalitions. Negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban forces are happening at undisclosed locations in the Gulf States. The Pakistan military has a long history of communication and even support for the Taliban. These larger relationships and negotiations will not obviate the need for additional talks with traditional leaders that can lead to peace.
According to Ali Gohar, a child of Pukhtoon culture and respected leader in Pukhtoon communities of Northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, any negotiations must be conditioned by customary law. He summarizes this in a recent monograph, “hospitality is one of the finest virtues, revenge a sacred duty and bravery an essential pre-requisite for an honorable life… These attributes also form the basis of the Pukhtoon code of honor and anyone who repudiates them is looked down upon by the society.” For the Pukhtoon peace is sustained by following norms, values and customary law.
Without authentic action of making things right by the perpetrator of a crime, badal (revenge) is a duty of a Pukhtoon tribesmen. The crime may come from those who invade and those who bomb with drones or air planes. The obligation of Badal rests with the aggrieved party and it can be discharged only by action against the aggressor, writes Gohar. If there is no means of revenge it may be deferred for years, but it is disgraceful to abandon it entirely. The whole tribe may be called upon to assist in retaliation.
In the Pukhtoon culture shame is for the victims. It can be equalized and therefore cancelled through revenge. Even though there is a strong religious belief that God will punish the wrongdoer here and in the hereafter, people still believe that revenge is their duty. A victim of kidnaping, rape or murder carries with her or him the shame of this crime done to them. This shame will persist for their whole life until and unless it is equalized by revenge. Shame is not just a matter for the individual. Shame is carried by the family and tribe of the victims for generations Only when traditional elders working through the council (jirga) of the community intervene with traditional law can the cycle of shame be broken without retribution.
There is no Pukhtoon word for “sorry”. If a person does something wrong, both the offender and the victim will suffer for generations until and unless it is equalized by applying the principal “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” By way of jirga intervention one may beg for forgiveness (nanawathay). Compromise through arbitration is also practiced when both parties agree to engage in a process.
In tribes and villages it is common for adult males to own a weapon. If a visitor comes to a village the males will line up and shoot their weapons as a sign of welcome. However, these weapons are also available in a time of need to form a police force in order to apply local customary law or as a militia when enemies from the outside appear.
This very sketchy smattering of Pukhtoon customs are at best a taste of what foreign armies, journalists and sincere helpers face in the present Afghanistan and Pakistani wars. An already complex social inheritance is made even more complicated by the introduction of various outside Muslim and non Muslim forces and home grown warlords now referred to as Taliban groups. In general however, any resolution will have to incorporate the deeply held values identified above and others if there is to be lasting peace.
I asked persons who live in the midst of Pukhtoon tribal society if there is any way that these tribal customs can become a resource for peace rather than a source of confusion and conflict. Their answer was an unqualified, “Yes”. “But” said one informer with deep roots in the region, “you can not send people from the military you must send civilians. We will not trust the military who send Hellfire missiles and bombs and soldiers.”
When I asked my informers if it would be safe for someone to come and talk they replied, “We honor our guests with our lives. They will be welcomed by a row of local people who shoot their weapons into the air as a sign of hospitality. We will guard you with our lives. Richard Holbrook would be welcomed tomorrow. Our most basic need right now is peace.”
“And who would Richard Holbrook or his Afghan or Pakistani counterpart talk to?” I asked. “A garget (community of elders) would be assembled in the tribe, the village, or region and we would start talking. It can happen.”
Revenge is a deep part of Pukhtoon life. But revenge for the coming decades is not inevitable. Every missile and every attack increases the deep margins of revenge in the Pukhtoon soul. Another proverb points the way in hope, “Where there is love a Pukhtoon will accompany you to hell but where there is force he will not even go to heaven with you.”
For information on how to access this new monograph Who learns from whom? Pukhtoon Traditions in Modern Perspective by Ali Gohar go to www.justpeaceint.org. It should be available shortly.
Note: In former posting I used the spelling Pashtoon. There are a variety of terms and spellings used to refer to the Pukhtoon people. For this piece I have been advised to use Pukhtoon.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, War and Poverty | Tags: drones, Swat Valley
This morning I travelled to Rawalpindi, the partner city to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, just to the North. Near the city center we noted , the park where Benazir Bhutto the then leading candidate for Prime Minister was gunned down in Dec. 2007. At the moment that I passed the Park with its history of blood, a massive explosion was occurring in Lahore several hours further south. Lahore is the city of Punjabi arts, sometimes called the Garden of the Moghuls, the one time rulers of India.
Twenty-six people were reported killed in the May 28 Lahore blast that destroyed a
come to Pakistan to see car bombs and frightened people. I have seen enough of that in Baghdad. The comparison is inescapable.
The signals remind all of us that it is worth a special effort to do the right thing if we can figure out what that right thing is. Bombings like this send a charge of fear through anyone in Pakistan. The questions of who carried out these bombing, why, and how the perpetrators were recruited will linger despite the immediate official appraisal that this is the result of the attack to retake the Swat Valley during the recent weeks by Pakistani forces.
I am still very much in a listening mode here. Usually the forces of violence and reprisals are much more complicated than immediate evidence might indicate. Now with more than three million internally displaced people from the Swat operation and other fighting, there is a press for emergency relief. Many seek refuge with relatives. Others occupy unused buildings. An impressive public response has been mounted. Yesterday a student we have learned to know told us of the work of his extended family to provide emergency help to more than 500 families. Other groups who collect food and other essentials are springing up. We have been approached to help.
My mind has trouble staying only in Islamabad. I keep thinking of Baghdad where two million grew to five million displaced people and more. Many had to seek refuge outside the country in Syria and Jordan. Many have still not returned. In much of human history refugees were created by natural disasters. In the advanced modern world refugees are created by war, sometimes called terror.
A group from the Swat Valley came to visit our team. They were as full of questions as I am. Why did police, and officials fail to resist when thefirst arrived. Why did police protection melt? When the Taliban preached fairer policies for land, people listened. Why wasn’t something done? Why were assassinations permitted. Now millions of cattle are dead. The crops due for harvest shortly will be wasted. Property may be destroyed and the fabric of this once prosperous valley is in danger. Even if temporary security is restored the cycle will continue next year and the next, a local leader told us.
We came here to learn about the effects of the drones. Wherever we go people can speak about them, probably more than citizens of the nations that produce them. Now as the war approaches the population centres of Pakistan, the feeling of urgency for defence against the violence is mounting. What was once outrage over drones is turning to an attitude that says, use anything to push back the violence. Pakistan requested that drones be part of the military assistance package from the US.
This week is the twelfth anniversary of the development of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. There is a lot of popular pride here about this accomplishment. People believe it has made Pakistan more secure. This date is not publicly celebrated or remembered like Hiroshima but many believe it has saved the nation.
The noble character of the people I meet here is not captured in the violent stories of this report. There are better angels and I am listening to their words too.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Digital/Star War, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Iraq, Politics of Empire, War and Poverty | Tags: counter insurgency, digital war, drones, Human Terrain Systems, Human Terrain Teams, robotic warfare
From Viet Nam to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan a lot has changed. But some days I am surprised at how much has not changed in the approach to local people. In the absence of tools sometimes called weapons to win hearts and minds the military has turned in two directions, higher technology, and social research.
It is hard to get people to talk candidly with you about their goals, dreams, hopes and personal problems when you carry a gun. Well actually I don’t know this for sure because I have never carried a gun. But I have learned that conversations don’t go very far in villages when I enter accompanied with soldiers or if there is suspicion that I am connected to soldiers.
Modern warfare usually incorporates something called counter insurgency. An insurgency is a rebellion as in an armed movement against foreign invaders or their own government. Those who carry out insurgency usually fight with sticks, rocks, guns, and the forced or willing cooperation of the local population. Unless the powers that be kill everybody, break everything and completely cut off water and food the insurgency usually grows. Building schools, passing out candy or even building irrigation systems doesn’t usually change things fundamentally because the favours, funds and fountain of development helps one side in the community but makes those sides who do not get anything even madder. The battle is called winning hearts and minds. The notion of getting to the heart awakens the imagination to a love affair. You get to the mind through the heart. Thinking right requires consent of the heart.
To get hearts and minds headed in the right direction imperial armies and their coalition partners, local and international, need to know very precisely who leads the enemy so that they can be killed. The CIA was set up to track down the necessary information but very quickly in its history it was derailed to perform operational duties, carrying out secret attacks that could not be traced at least not right away. It takes dangerous and often gruelling decades long work to get good information. Reliable information is called intelligence but in the real world of agency intelligence the product is not always based on intelligent facts because no one was able to assemble reliable facts. So short cuts are needed like analysts who are supposed to be good at reading the signs or what use to be called tea leaves.
I learned this first in Viet Nam when occasionally I met well groomed American civilians – my age or only slightly older – swaggering through wherever I happened to be. Sometimes we would have relaxed conversations during which each of us tried to figure out what the other knew. It took me months and years to realize that these folks were working from a very different framework than the one that I was learning from villagers. At first I thought I was just naive, and unable to read the signs. Later I realized that these folks were not listening to the same people I was. Still later when I became convinced that the war in Viet Nam would come to nothing good, I lost confidence completely in whatever template the smart well dressed civilian contacts seemed to put forward.
From Viet Nam to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan a lot has changed. But, some days I am surprised, at how much has not changed in the approach to local people. In the absence of tools sometimes called weapons, to win hearts and minds the military and its operational partner, the CIA has turned in two directions, higher technology, and social research.
Unmanned vehicles (drones) now circle the skies of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with precision cameras scoping out targets and precision laser guided missiles ready to release their terror at the push of a button from command room pilots and staff thousands of miles away. Hired informants, some of whom are double agents on the ground may suggest targets. These attacks in Pakistan have caused a furor among Pakistani people. The US Defence Secretary’s budget this year calls for spending $2 billion on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, with much of the money going to drones.
Complementing the drones, digital warfare’s current crown jewel, is another innovation, Human Terrain Teams (HTT), unveiled in 2005. HTT are as radically low tech, as Predators and other robots are high tech. The teams incorporate professional anthropologists, other social scientists, linguists and analysts, who are assigned to forward area units. The civilian and military HTT team members who advise commanders may or may not carry weapons. The researchers talk to and listen to the local population to understand power, conflict, and grievances so that responses both developmental, relief, and military may be wisely targeted, timed, and conditioned for maximum effect. The use of anthropologists has brought warnings from their professional association. The first ethical responsibility of an anthropologist is to “do no harm.”
Some Human Terrain Team members report that the hardest part is overcoming the suspicion of being part of the American military – no surprise to development, relief, and human rights workers or unarmed peacemakers who carry out their work in militarized zones. This year 40 million dollars more was added to the US defence budget for Human Terrain Teams.
Part of me is sympathetic to a military commander who is usually left to his or her elementary instincts in relating to a local population. I have never felt that I was sufficiently knowledgeable or listened enough to local people when I travelled in peacemaking work. Admittedly, I had a little less to contend with than the soldier. I wasn’t as encumbered by the confining traditions and culture of combat and enemy talk. But let’s face it basic survival instincts are common to all of us who work under life threatening situations.
Will the Human Terrain System work? We’ll see. Probably not! Insurgencies of all kinds have a lot of control over the initiative. Insurgents can figure out how to influence Human Terrain Team members. Interviews can be finessed. Local culture can be tilted to encourage attack on an intertribal or intra tribal enemy A good researcher should be able to sort the truth from the wasted words. But can they? There is little that is reliable fact in a war situation where the first victim is truth itself.
If social research gets to the truth why have there been so many disputed bombings in Afghanistan where so many civilians have been killed? Is the problem cameras from above, analysis or social research. The analysing industry will grow. Human Terrain Teams will become part of the lexicon of war like psychological operations units, civic action officers, special forces and other specialized units that someone once thought would change everything and make those elusive hearts and minds more accessible and manageable.
This leaves me with other kinds of peacemaking, the kind without uniforms, drone protection from the sky, a culture of enemy talk and personal arms. I may not have complete confidence in Human Terrain Teams but I believe peacemakers and development workers too can deepen their capacity to listen to and enlarge cultural understanding too. Peacemakers are not engaged in a contest over control of hearts and minds. The only victory is peace. The sounds and visuals along the way give encouragement and hope. Peacemakers believe that the seeds of peace already exist. The point is to have eyes to see the signs, ears to hear its cadence and a voice to talk it out. In the absence of enough unarmed civilian peacemakers if Human Terrain Teams can help this to happen I will be the first to celebrate.
“I tell you,” he (Jesus) replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)
Filed under: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Guilty Peacemaking, Nonviolence, Nonviolent defence, Peacemaker spirit, War and Poverty
The dollars moving out there through cyberspace and the markets are only worth something if people believe that paper money has value. That belief has everything to do with who owns the dollars, who owes dollars and how, or even if, there is faith that those dollars will make the future better and contribute to security. Occasionally strange people who embrace ascetic like notions of simple life come along to challenge our faith in the hidden hand of the market place. We need them now.
When I went overseas in the 1960s I often met people who talked about the money lenders who went to markets and coffee shops to find consumers to whom they offered a loan at 20% interest for just a few weeks. In emergencies, vulnerable consumers or petty merchants borrowed money fast. Occasionally they lost everything because they were unable to pay back on time. Lenders themselves rarely lose, and may even welcome the crisis of foreclosures.
This primitive banking system is practised in every developing nation and in some industrializing cities. Advanced capitalism encourages a more rationalized version of this in developed nations. Rates are far lower than 20% for a six to eight week loans but borrowers still lose everything sometimes. In the current home loan crisis, recipients are losing their homes because they took advantage of low cost opportunities or failed to read the fine print.
The law is a helpful though often a porous boundary in preventing these collapses. Ancient and modern lenders use, misuse, avoid or manipulate the law. The power of money lenders is always great. The power of the borrower is great too if they happen to unite which is rare. Big borrowers like the US government or large strategic corporations unlike small borrowers get bailed out. We are now in a crisis of faith, faith in the US dollar. We are not confident of what has value. But borrowing continues to be encouraged because it makes more things happen. The economy grows and they tell us that is good for all of us.
The time has come for a renewed vision for simple life to make itself known outside and even inside the monuments of economic globalization and foreclosure. People who practice simple life detach themselves from the faith statements of good economic citizens and try to live within their means. When they take jobs or select careers their choices are guided by healthy connections with the earth, water and air, the source of all value. Their non attachment is often but not always related to faith, in some cases faith in a God who functions outside the rules of economic life, rules put in place by the haves.
This simple life also creates space for volunteering, peacemaking and all kinds of experiments in self sufficiency, and self reliance. Simple life people think globally. They, of course, can be preachy or wrong but often their stubbornness is a gift for all of us if we take the time to listen. Their core spirit is honed through detachment from hardened positions of finance, towards a vision of wholeness that can awaken whole communities, even nations.
A simple life like John the Baptist, or Gandhi lived is a gift, and a sign for the ages. With walking sticks they stumbled to the sea where salt and new life awaited them and their followers. Their strange notions of simple villages made joyful by transcendent visions of righteousness were mocked. But their detached ways eventually saved continents from the tragedy of money lenders. There are John the Baptists or Gandhis expectantly waiting to be born in each of us.
People who have internalized the depth of compassion at the core of simple life can be a gift for a wobbling global economy. Detachment from the economic system does not infer an expectation of doom or permanent success. It does, however, remove the simple lifer from the superstitions of the global economy. Real promoters of simple life have learned that guilt is not a good motivation. Without all those burdens, debts, and obligations the person of simple life has a degree of critical objectivity and wisdom to bring as their gift to the great economic councils where decisions about faith and money are life and death matters for billions of people.
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Iraq, Viet Nam, War and Poverty
Each week in 2005, 120 persons who had served in the US military killed themselves according to CBS news this week. That is 6,256 suicides in 2005 a rate twice as high as the general population. The thought of these soldier victims of war takes me back to the soup kitchens where I served occasionally since coming back from Viet Nam in 1967. In those lines I met the homeless soldiers who didn’t take their own lives but nevertheless are the living wounded. Some watchers estimate that more than three times as many veterans from the war in Viet Nam have committed suicide as the 58,000 who lost their lives in direct combat.
Is there meaning in these statistics? How do we explain this collapse of faith? How does that place within where hope lives, disappear into an vacuum bereft of feelings of love, compassion and belief in life? Is the participation in the horror of war too painful to bear? The suppression of powerful feelings can suppress all feelings. “They just want out”, one person who once contemplated suicide told me.
The conclusion, that suicides are on the rise due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is supported by various studies. The statistics, their validity, the methodology and the conclusions will be argued for a generation but the trends cannot be denied.
When I speak out publically about war in Iraq, or earlier on Viet Nam, some audience members charged me with supporting a culture of disrespect for returning soldiers. Images of troubled and suicidal soldiers who also attended those public events awakened me last night. In my audience dream I felt the simultaneous shouts from both camps of returning soldiers, those coveting my support as an act of patriotism and the tired faces of broken soldiers groping for feelings to explain the thick and dark now silent experience of war. The images of my dream had no words, only the vapid character of hopelessness thrashing about in a sea of soft patriotism.
In my younger days I kept my distance from the returning soldiers because I could not authentically celebrate their work as heroism. My journey to compassion for the broken warrior has grown over the years. The journey has included engagement with and respect for all soldiers. I realize at my core that 500 years of persistent teaching of “returning good for evil”, “love of enemy”, and “refusal to kill” was an unearned gift of my subculture. I now see my former rejection of soldiers as a self created flaw arising from my idea that they had brought about their own problem by the choices they made. The subculture from which I came did not command me to use a rifle and overwhelming power to penetrate the defences of an enemy. I was not taught to command others to do so. I was not expected to break down doors, destroy furniture and shoot at people. I was not expected to protect my buddies with lethal weapons. I was not encouraged to discount the civilian casualties. However, I witnessed some of the horror of this so I can see the disjunction and crippling that occurs in the body, mind and spirit as a result.
Whatever else it is, be it individual suicide arising out of internal breakdown or suicide bombers believing in a cause, suicide is also the abandonment of hope in civil society to provide meaning and justice for all. It is a reminder that there remains deep crevices of hollowness even in the most advanced society and the most devout of religious faiths. It reminds us that patriotism that holds warfare as its supreme test of loyalty has deep decaying cavities. It reminds us of the hard work ahead, creating a more perfect union of faith, hope and justice.
When I returned from Viet Nam where I had been a civilian volunteer I was welcomed home by my community, not as a hero, but as one who had tried to speak the truth about war. When my efforts to speak grew tired and lacked internal meaning, I went to find help for my empty heart, set adrift by the reality of war and the support for it in the larger society. I found help, including financial support from my church’s health insurance agency and from other individuals. The help I got 40 years ago was probably more personal, more enlightened and nuanced than Veteran’s Affairs or the Department of Defence can offer even today. That help was one expression of generations of development of a culture for peace.
As the suicide statistics grow here and around the world, I hope that I will not meet suicidal former soldiers in soup lines thirty years from now. I hope that the churches, peace groups and institutions that strive to create a culture of peace like the one that gave me life, will grow into a renaissance of creativity that includes all the victims of war. But, I also know that the very best efforts of faith or therapy will not rebuild some of their inner life, laid waste by the fire bombs of war. I know that we have very large work before us – foolishness to many liberals and conservatives alike – to put an end to war before it puts an end to life.
When the war in Iraq began I knew that on military grounds alone, we were in for a big and sustained epoch because the economies and faith convictions threads that hold society together in the Middle East transcends nations. Invading one nation affects the entire region. I also knew that there would be unexpected explosions and new tensions between clans, religious bodies and nations where death and destruction would unravel tenuous alliances built up over generations and centuries. My worst case worry was a descent into a permanent state of armed conflict at which the US would be at the center. Even though I suspected it, I didn’t quite believe something so catastrophic could happen.
I naively thought that the lessons of Viet Nam, Central America and other interventions had been thoroughly explored and refined into a military doctrine, namely that the enemy would only be defeated by a combination of positive social engagement, listening, and occasional use of force. I thought that the professional military leaders, in spite of the short sightedness of the civilian leadership, had honed a doctrine of warfare consistent with the times that required attention to people’s needs for security, health and hope for the future. Regardless of my state of non-confidence in the long range values of a single super power, I hoped that the US military was ready to mix listening to local opinion leaders with the force which is their hallmark, to stitch together something less than peace but something better than my worst fears. I was wrong, very wrong. Force was the primary strategy.
As Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Pentagon correspondent, has laid out in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq how the US military largely neglected whatever lessons might have been learned in its post world war interventions. It reverted instead to a “kill the enemy” and “destroy the insurgency” model of warfare after proclaiming victory shortly after the intervention began in late March 2003. In the early months after the invasion there was little conversation with local leaders since the invading force believed local leaders with Ba’athist party membership had to be punished by prohibiting their participation in the new order. As a result basic security and services in neighborhoods waned because the Coalition that led the invasion had no plan to deal with these matters. A bad economy got worse and the structures of society except for religious institutions and kinship connections disappeared – this, in a society that in the 1980s had significant momentum.
Two incidents from my summer 2003 visit stand out. A neighbor and one time senior bank manager about my age living in a house near our Baghdad apartment invited me for a late afternoon snack and chat. He was curious about our group, its intentions and its work. Most of all he was anxious for a thoughtful exchange of views. During the two hour conversation we sampled from the richness of our separate lives. Since this was our first meeting, my life experiences had taught me not to expect to go really deep. But our talk turned to the behavior of US soldiers on the street. At one point he leaned forward and said to me, “Can you explain to me why the US Forces, especially their commanders never talk to us.” I had no answer except to say that evidently they were not instructed to talk to Iraqis. It was not part of the mission. The banker’s question helped me understand why no one in the US civilian or military structures seemed to have answers for our peacemaker team about the treatment or intentions regarding detainees. Few people in the U. S. Command structure were consulting or listening to Iraqi civil society leaders and the life and death matters they were raising.
I filed this conversation away with others like it until the day before I was to depart from Iraq when a very good friend rushed to our apartment to invite me and a few of my colleagues to a special luncheon. Although our attendance necessitated changes in many plans we agreed to go because we knew that the friend attached some significance to the event. We went with some trepidation because we thought we might be asked to make interventions with the US Commanders regarding matters that were beyond our abilities or mission of peacemaking. When we arrived at the meeting there were fifteen people gathered in a circle, largely persons from Fallujah who enjoyed senior rank in their community. They wanted to know what we could do about the deteriorating situation. We said we would present our perspectives to the press and encourage our supporters to convey their concerns to their government legislators. Regularly we returned to the problem of detainees the main focus of the peacemaker team. The people from Fullujah hinted at deep divisions and explosive possibilities in Iraqi society and particularly their city. Could we help? I heard them saying to me, “What can you and the people you claim to represent do to avert a catastrophe?” I was not satisfied with my answers.
After two hours the meeting and eating ended with warm handshakes and embraces. Their spokesman who was at that time a senior person in the newly minted provisional government’s security apparatus took me aside after receiving a call on his cell phone from his US military liaison. “My extended family” he said, “ has a person who was picked up in one of the US army raids and we are all scared. What can you do” When I finished talking to him, others in the circle also came to request help for relatives. This was seven months before the Abu Ghraib situation shocked the world with gruesome pictures of detainee abuse, and six months before the first battle of Fallujah which was ignited by insurgents ambushing four military contractors who were delivering food.. The burned corpses of the contracted foreign workers were hung on a bridge over the Euphrates River while the cameras of the world were in focus. Were these the catastrophes that were inferred in our earlier conversation? Should I have read more deeply into their talk of deep division and explosive possibilities? How should our peacemaker team have refined our mission?
The U.S. military entered Iraq with fire power and a mission to kill the enemy and the expectation that this would lead to liberation and democracy. The President’s mission as delivered to commanders had little to do with listening or the respectful treatment of Iraqi institutions built up over generations. Iraqi society was left to wallow in violence that continues to the present. Even as this was unfolding we found many curious persons in Iraq, including students, religious leaders and professionals with great interest in expressions of nonviolence to pre-empt the impending cycle of violence. But we were not prepared to respond fully to these opportunities. We lacked an overall strategy that could encourage or channel this interest into effective Iraqi action. We also lacked enough trained full time workers who knew how to listen to Iraqis and think creatively and outside the box of orthodox nonviolence.
I began this reflective piece by trying to provide a snapshot of the American battle plan which until the present has only demonstrated superior firepower and addiction to force. This was a battle plan that called for what armies do best, killing and breaking things. What it lacked was a strategy for the peace that people could understand and discuss. When I left Viet Nam 40 years ago I believed that peace people could learn from the incessant training, reflection and organization of armies. But as I watch the Iraq story unfold I have an overwhelming sense that just like armies peace people including myself are locked into formulas for peace work – campaigns, demonstrations, lobbying and occasional trainings that have difficulty visioning and describing a real world without armies. The catastrophe in Iraq could have created the space for Iraqi people to think new thoughts and create new strategies. In the absence of stronger support and strategies, some found their way to safe places outside Iraq. Others joined the insurgencies. They did not need so much training on how to do demonstrations or listening to their people. They needed people to help create the space to plan, to train and to talk back when only violent tactics of killing the enemy were modeled. Aside from a few training opportunities the peace teams and the US military have a lot to learn.
I believe what is waiting to happen is more and varied experiments in peacemaking to be birthed in places of impending disaster around our world. What I do know is that in the midst of the debacles people are waiting and asking, “Where are the people with a strategy and follow through of the things that make for peace?”