Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why Not a Peace Surge?

Greg Mortenson is a one-man peace wave. While heavily armed soldiers and insurgents clashed and bombs burst across Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout most of the past decade, Mortenson repeatedly trekked into the disputed region—without a rifle or artillery barrages and bombing runs to clear a path—and helped villagers in dozens of communities build schools. Imagine providing many more such peacemakers, instead of another surge of military action churning up fiercely proud people who have been fighting foreign armies for generations.

“We've started schools this year in five new provinces … which have a lot of Taliban. And the reason we're able to work with them is because we work so closely with the elders,” Mortenson said recently on Bill Moyers Journal. “Many of the elders I know are really angry at the Americans,” Mortenson told the Christian Science Monitor last fall. “It has less to do with our presence and more to do with the huge outcries caused by drones and bombers attacking suspected Taliban hangouts but killing a lot of innocent people.”

A peace-making U.S. Army veteran, Mortenson is the author of Three Cups of Tea, his inspiring account of a people-to-people project that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan funded by Pennies for Peace fund-raisers by American students and community groups. His latest book is Stones into Schools: Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has attracted substantial news media coverage.

Mortenson’s advice for President Obama is to listen to the concerns of Afghan villagers, which center on surviving the violence of seemingly endless war and educating their children. “It would do more good than spending another $1 billion on combat operations or foreign aid,” he told the Christian Science Monitor.

Asked by Bill Moyers how many schools could be built with $1 million—the cost of keeping one American soldier in Afghanistan for a year—Mortenson said his grassroots campaign, which involves local villagers doing much of the work, could build 30 to 40 schools with that amount of money. Imagine how many schools could be built with the billions budgeted for Obama’s 30,000-troop surge, Moyers implied.

In a telling example reported by the Christian Science Monitor, Mortenson’s actions of providing school books instead of bombs resulted in a ceasefire in hostilities between Afghan villagers and U.S. military patrols near the Pakistan border. Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda lauded Mortenson’s campaign. “Elders understand, better than anyone, what has happened to their society as too many young men and women have grown up without schools over the last 30 years,” said Kolenda, who sought out Mortenson to build a school in a village where residents retaliated against any incursions by foreign troops, except when the Americans trucked in school supplies. “I truly believe that education is the long-term solution to terrorism and violent extremism,” the colonel said.

Top American military officers say they are studying Mortenson’s approach and changing their tactics as a result. But U.S. peace activists contend that the military forces scouring Afghanistan and bombing suspected terrorists in Pakistan stir up the anger that fuels support for the Taliban insurgency that hides the elusive leaders of al Qaida.

“The Obama administration needs to replace its military campaigns with diplomacy in and around Afghanistan,” argue the authors of a new book, Ending the US War in Afghanistan. The book is written by David Wildman, of the General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church, and Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

Bennis and Wildman call for ending combat operations in Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan, withdrawing U.S. troops and shifting funding from the Pentagon to the State Department for aiding education, police training, health services and other aspects of civilian society in Afghanistan. Convincing our government to make such a shift will require a sustained public education campaign. Bennis and Wildman cite the work of the Cities for Peace campaign to end the war in Iraq as a model for Afghanistan.

“Campaigns that organize around the costs of war at the local, congressional district, or state level have two major strengths,” they contend. “First, engaging with citizens at the local level encourages more people to engage directly in civic activism … Second, they provide an immediate link to the costs of war at a scale and in language that everyone can understand.”

Calls for winding down the war in Afghanistan have been made by military experts. “There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon research contractor, concluded in 2008 in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world since 1968. “In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism,’” the report to the Pentagon stated.

A big problem with the military surge is that years of combat operations in Afghanistan have soured local villagers on America’s promises to help their society. “You're saying that people in Afghanistan find it confusing to have Americans coming off the same fortified base and some of them bring guns and are killing people and others bring money and are trying to fix things,” Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition said recently to the head of the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace, John Dempsey. “Well, exactly,” said Dempsey, who had noted that American provincial reconstruction teams work out of military bases. “And some Afghans, I think, are questioning whether or not the whole PRT concept is actually worthwhile. And some look at them with skepticism, saying having the military involved in development work is blurring the line between fighting a war and trying to reconstruct a country,” Dempsey said.

It’s high time for a peace surge in Afghanistan, argues Sherwood Ross, a veteran journalist and blogger. “The U.S. would be far better off if instead of pouring tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan it sent in a like number of unarmed Peace Corps volunteers with a comparable budget,” Ross wrote in a recent post on LA Progressive.

For further information:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Writing It Out

Riding out the storms of life can be rough. Sometimes it helps to write it out, when the world around you seems as unsettling as a ship in a hurricane—or a small boat chugging up a jungle river full of startling surprises.

I began jotting random thoughts on scraps of paper during an Army tour in Vietnam and graduated to pocket notebooks that I’ve filled with scribbling ever since. They are logbooks of discoveries, including titles of books to read, web sites to check out, snippets of conversation (real and imaginary), fragments of what might become poetry, ideas for an essay or a book.

“My poetry is mostly dealing with emotional turmoil,” I noted one day amid the latest upheaval in my life. “I’ll be working Xmas. So here’s a toast to the working stiffs who keep things humming on holidays,” I jotted on another occasion, setting the tone for a Happy Holidays letter folded into Christmas cards to family and friends.

As my life has migrated to constant use of computers, I also peck out and rewrite detailed drafts for blogs, journalism pieces, book projects. And I look for clues or encouragement in handling life by reading other folks’ writings.

Looking to share what I’ve found helpful, I’ve teamed up with other scribblers to offer writing workshops. Two upcoming events I’m participating in are open to the public. They are a Warrior Writers Retreat in Philadelphia, PA and a writing workshop for veterans and family members being held at the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, NY. Here’re the details:

Northeast Warrior Writers Retreat

Who: Veterans, supporters, artists, healers
What: Gather for a healing and learning weekend of arts and wellness
Where: Studio 34, 4522 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA
When: February 26-28, 2010
Why: Because our society needs to heal and we can be a part of that
How: Writing, art, yoga, massage therapy, acupuncture, training, etc.

The Retreat will feature writing and art-making workshops, trainings in running workshops, meetings to discuss local support for veterans, an art show and performance and sessions in massage, yoga, reiki and acupuncture.

Financial assistance, such as “sponsor a vet” to attend, is welcome. The Warrior Writers Project is sponsored by IVAW, 630 9th Ave, Suite 807, New York, NY 10036. For more information: http://www.warriorwriters.org/retreat.html.

Write It Out Workshop

A free Writing Workshop for Military Veterans and Family Members

First workshop Feb. 2nd, 2010 @ 8 pm
Ongoing schedule, Tuesdays at 8 pm (frequency per month to be determined by participants)
Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)
521 N. Broadway, Upper Nyack, NY

Workshop leaders: Gerald McCarthy, Jan Barry, Michael Gillen.
Poets and writers whose perspectives were shaped by military service in Vietnam, McCarthy is a professor of English at St. Thomas Aquinas College; Barry teaches journalism at St. Thomas Aquinas College and at Ramapo College of New Jersey; Gillen teaches Asian history at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY and a course on the Vietnam War at Purchase College, State University of New York..
For further information, contact: Gerry at gmccarth@stac.edu or 845-570-1410, cell. Office: 845-398-4134.

Jan Barry served in Vietnam with the US Army. A poet, author and retired newspaper reporter, he teaches environmental writing at Ramapo College of NJ and journalism at St. Thomas Aquinas College. His poems on the war appeared in diverse publications, from the Chicago Tribune and New York Times to A People and A Nation: A History of the United States. He coedited Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, published by 1st Casualty Press, founded by Jan Barry and fellow veterans Larry Rottmann and Basil T. Paquet. With W.D. Ehrhart, he compiled a sequel, Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam. He also edited Peace Is Our Profession: Poems and Passages of War Protest. He lives in South Bound Brook, NJ.

Michael Gillen served in Vietnam with the Merchant Marine. He teaches Asian History at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY, and a course on the Vietnam War at Purchase College, State University of New York. His poetry and prose have appeared in The Veteran, Post Traumatic Press 2007, and elsewhere. He is formerly editor of the Master, Mate and Pilot and an assistant editor of the Seafarers Log. He lives in White Plains, NY.

Gerald McCarthy is a USMC veteran with service in Vietnam. He is a member of Veterans For Peace Chapter 60, Tappan Zee Brigade and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. His poems have been selected for inclusion in Hawaii Pacific Review’s Best of the Decade issue and in Twenty Years of Writing from Italian Americana. New poems also appear in The North American Review, War Literature & the Arts, etc. Trouble Light, a new full–length collection of his poetry, was published by West End Press/ University of New Mexico Press (2008). He lives in Nyack, NY and teaches writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.