Tuesday, January 15, 2013

From Waging War to Waging Peace

Vietnam Veteran Against the War, 1971     (photo/Sheldon Ramsdell)

Talk by Jan Barry
Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, Teaneck, NJ
Sunday, January 13, 2013

When I was 21, I made the most crucial decision of my life—whether to return to Vietnam as a soldier or to resign from a military career. In a life focused on nonviolent conflict resolution, I’ve met many ex-soldiers who turned from waging war to waging peace. Such transformation happens when combatants wrestle with a fundamental question: What is the right thing to do in a war? If soldiers can make this transformation, why can’t American society? 

Having served an eye-opening early tour in Vietnam, I resigned from West Point rather than help escalate the war there. Instead, I helped to start an organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, that worked to end the war we fought in.  For the past decade, many other Americans have spoken out against the wars conducted by our military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. All across America, there are many veterans of the latest wars working for peace, some in well-known organizations such as Veterans For Peace and others embedded throughout our society. But Americans would hardly know this due to our news media’s crusty culture of worshipping war.

War drums began beating across America before the dust settled at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s an all-American tradition to march to the beat for military action, the fountain of flag waving excitement that produces legions of war correspondents, bugle-blaring headlines and armchair commandos in newsrooms.

It is rare to hear that a drum-beat journalist felt, in retrospect, that rushing to war was perhaps a grave mistake. It’s almost historic, in fact, to see the reconsideration that Bill Keller, a top editor and columnist at the New York Times, published amid the flood of 9/11 commemorations on the 10th anniversary of that explosive spark of war the US expanded to places most Americans had barely heard of before.

“The world is well rid of Saddam Hussein,” Keller wrote. “But knowing as we now do the exaggeration of Hussein’s threat, the cost in Iraqi and American lives and the fact that none of this great splurge has bought us confidence in Iraq’s future or advanced the cause of freedom elsewhere— I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder,” Keller wrote in a New York Times Magazine article.

The bulk of the Times’ massive retrospective, however, was essentially a monument to the US news media’s cheerleading for a decade of military blunders. A major reason for this is that, for all the war correspondents and warrior-editors, there are few if any journalists assigned to cover waging peace.

Do editors at the Times and other mainstream news organizations ever travel outside military-oriented circles and see what groups such as September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Peace Action, Veterans For Peace or the US Institute of Peace are doing? Even small newspapers have a military affairs reporter. Does any news organization in America have a peace beat?

The glaring lack of coverage of peace groups’ actions spurred a special report nearly two years ago by the Nieman Watchdog website of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

“Antiwar activists repeatedly stage dramatic acts of civil disobedience in the United States but are almost entirely ignored by mainstream print and broadcast news organizations. During the Vietnam era, press coverage of the fighting and opposition to it at home helped turn public opinion against the war. This time around lack of homefront coverage may be helping keep military involvement continue on and on,” wrote John Hanrahan, a former Washington Post reporter.

“By ignoring antiwar protests almost totally, editors are treating opposition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan much as they handled the run-up to the war in Iraq: They are missing an important story and contributing to the perception that there is no visible opposition to the U.S. wars and ever-growing military budgets, even as polls show overwhelming support for early U.S. military withdrawal,” Hanrahan continued.

Among the examples of non-coverage of significant events that Hanrahan cited was a December 2010 “demonstration organized by Veterans for Peace, 500 or more people gathered outside the White House, as snow was falling, to protest the war and to support Wikileaks and accused leaker PFC Bradley Manning. … there were 131 arrests – including a sizable number of veterans of current and past wars – for nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. … The event was covered by The Huffington Post, the Socialist Worker, OpEd News, Salem-News.com in Oregon, and the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, but was ignored by The Washington Post, The New York Times and almost all other mainstream media,” Hanrahan found.

Among the leaders of Veterans For Peace, whose statements are frequently ignored by the national news media, is Leah Bolger, the organization’s national president and a retired Navy officer, who traveled last fall in a peace delegation to Pakistan to areas hit by US drone missiles. You probably didn’t see Leah Bolger on CNN—although what she has to say about civilian casualties of our not-so-secret drone war in Pakistan is all over the Internet.  

Paul Chappell
Among other peace activists ignored by the news media is former Army Captain Paul Chappell, who attended West Point "determined to study war the way a doctor studies an illness." What he found in his studies and in a war tour in Iraq was a pragmatic way of envisioning what it would take to create a cure for war fever. "In the U.S. Army, as in ancient Greece, the most admired trait in soldiers is not their ability to kill but their willingness to sacrifice for their friends," Chappell notes in his book, Will War Ever End? A Soldier's Vision of Peace for the 21st Century. Chappell argues that soldiers and folks at home, in order to protect each other, should mount a concerted campaign to wind down warmaking, due to the massively deadly threat of military escalation in the nuclear age. A better way of dealing with international disputes, he contends, is to adapt nonviolent tactics to produce conflict resolution that de-escalates violence.

From his experience in Iraq, Chappell argues that the war on terrorism "can never be won with an army alone, because terrorism is not a place we can occupy or a dictator we can overthrow." He argues that military actions are stoking the hatred fueling angry people who use terrorism as a tactic in fighting for their beliefs and causes. "If we are going to win the war on terrorism ... the United States will require many more soldiers, and not just soldiers who are armed with guns. ... During the challenging years ahead, our planet will need soldiers of peace who understand this truth of our brotherhood, because our survival in an interconnected world will not depend upon our ability to wage war. The fate of humanity will depend upon our willingness to wage peace."

Chappell found a model for banishing war in the 19th century campaigns to ban slavery. "Slavery existed on a global scale for thousands of years, but due to the courageous actions of our ancestors who fought this injustice, no country today sanctions slavery. Together we have the capacity to create a world where countries no longer sanction war."

Chappell was struck in his military training by how hard the military has had to work to train and prod soldiers to fight in combat. This is proof, he argues, that humans don't have a gene for waging wars. And he took note of General Omar Bradley's comment after leading armies in World War II: "Modern war visits destruction on the victor and the vanquished alike. Our only complete assurance of surviving World War III is to halt it before it starts." Reflecting on his own military career, which started at West Point and spanned two world wars, Bradley stated, in a 1948 Memorial Day speech: "Wars can be prevented just as surely as they are provoked."

On Armistice Day in 1948, Omar Bradley added this observation: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.”

General Bradley spoke out in the Truman government against expanding the war in Korea into China. His West Point classmate, Dwight Eisenhower, ran for president and ended the war in Korea. That’s a good model for our government to follow today—stop expanding and start ending our wars in Asia and the Middle East.  

It is long past time for the Obama administration and Congress to hear from veterans and military families of the monstrous, cancerous consequences of the war on terrorism who have been ignored by the gatekeepers of the news media, congressional committees and at the White House.

Here’s a sampling of what they’d hear:

[poems from After Action Review: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans of the Global War on Terror: “A Letter to the War Presidents” by Iraq war veteran Raymond Camper, “Support the Troops” by Afghanistan war veteran Jacob George]   

Meanwhile, as US military forces roam the world in search of enemies to fight, folks back home are under assault by suicidal, mayhem-bent sons and neighbors wielding military assault weapons. America’s relentless wars have come home in terrifying, terrible ways.

Gunmen from our own communities have turned urban neighborhoods, suburban shopping malls, college campuses and small town schools into war zones.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end,” President Obama said at a prayer vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, where a 20-year-old local resident killed 20 school children, six teachers and administrators, his mother and himself in volleys of shots in a war on the community where he was raised.

The National Rife Association’s proposed solution is to station armed guards in every school. That would take a lot of armed guards. Plus, many of these mass shootings have been in other places—shopping malls, a movie theater, churches, post offices, at the site of house fires. To protect every American from those few who decide to play war with real assault weapons would take an army.   

The military solution would be to declare martial law, station troops at every school, shopping center and every other public gathering place, marshal special operations teams to break down doors at every home and apartment that military-intelligence found reason to believe may harbor hidden weapons of mass destruction.

That’s been the American way of war for the past decade and more in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s been very popular in American video games, movies, TV shows. And it’s been a fatal attraction for many young men in American communities whose minds became unhinged in a society that apparently worships military-style violence.

“We have to change,” our commander-in-chief said in Newton. Obama could lead off by ending the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. Americans are dying across America of the consequences of waging such violence abroad.

These wars are killing our soldiers and veterans at home. The suicide rate among active duty troops this past year was roughly one death per day, with a big jump in July in the Army, according to military reports. The total number of U.S. military deaths by suicide since 2001 is more than 2,600—eclipsing the 2,000-plus military fatalities in Afghanistan, Time magazine noted in a front page special report last summer.

Meanwhile, military veterans have been committing suicide at a furious clip of about 18 per day for several years, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

How to stop an epidemic of suicides has baffled military and VA leaders. Everyone from former soldiers to President Obama is now weighing in on a tragedy that for a long time was seldom talked about in public.

As anyone who has had combat military training knows, wartime military culture drums into soldiers that the solution to seemingly intractable problems is to shoot or blow something up and kill somebody. Indeed, the most frequent form of self-destruction by veterans is shooting themselves, suicide reports compiled in Nevada and New Jersey show.

There is a reason why there is a National Guard armory in Teaneck—armories are where the military stores weapons. The National Guard, the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines do not allow their members to store tanks, bombers, artillery, machineguns or other assault weapons at home. There is no reason why anyone else should be allowed to either.

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