Thursday, December 29, 2011

Iraq: Hot News and History

Crisis plagues Iraq as U.S. troops depart -- As the last U.S. soldiers exited Iraq Sunday and debate was raging about the nation's future, political crisis erupted in Baghdad that raised fears of more sectarian strife to come. Iraqiya, a powerful political bloc that draws support largely from Sunni and more secular Iraqis, said it was boycotting parliament, a move that threatens to shatter Iraq's fragile power-sharing government.” – CNN 12/18/11 
 “As US troops exit Iraq, Maliki moves against Sunni rivals -- Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, briefly arrested the Sunni vice president yesterday and has urged a vote of no confidence against the Sunni deputy premier.” – McClatchy Newspapers/Christian Science Monitor 12/19/11
 “Iraqi Kurds maneuver in political minefield -- Iraqi Kurds, at odds with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over oil and power, have thrown down another challenge to the Shi'ite-led central government by giving refuge to Iraq's Sunni Muslim vice-president, despite a Baghdad warrant for his arrest.” – Reuters/Chicago Tribune 12/29/11

Long before the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was set up in the Pentagon to establish democracy in Baghdad, on just eight weeks notice before President Bush’s “shock and awe” invasion was launched, the British empire had a plan to make Iraq the very model of a modern democratic state.

The failure of British colonial administrators to plant a viable parliament in the Cradle of Civilization in a tumultuous 12-year effort (1920-32) should have been a sobering lesson to those running the American campaign, British historian Toby Dodge warned in a book published amid American self-congratulations on quickly overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime. In his timely book on the origins of Iraq—Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (Columbia University Press, 2003)—published amid daily news bulletins of violent attacks on “postwar” U.S. military patrols, Dodge shows how terribly relevant history can be.

Carved out of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Iraq was a British invention, a cobbling together of disparate desert tribes who were to be molded into a “modern” state. When the natives resisted, the reformers dispatched by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill and other leading lights in London unleashed a deadly new device and bombed rural villages. “The British in Iraq in the 1920s, because of a lack of finance and soldiers, came to rely heavily on the coercive power of airplanes. Governance was delivered from two hundred feet, in the shape of regular bombing and machine-gun fire,” Dodge notes.

Now here’s the capsule lesson for Americans too busy reforming Iraq to read a history book:

 “The Iraqis of the 1920s were deeply suspicious of British motives. Through violence and political mobilization, they forced the colonial power to leave much sooner than they had anticipated,” Dodge writes. “Ultimately, however, it was the way the British understood Iraqi society that came to undermine their attempt to build a stable state. British colonial administrators…set about devolving power to indigenous Iraqis they believed had social influence. Resources were channeled through those individuals in the hope that they could guarantee social order at the lowest possible cost. The resulting state was built on extremely shallow social foundations. The governments that inherited the state after independence had, like the British before them, to resort to high levels of violence and patronage to keep the population from rising up and unseating them.”

The ink on Dodge’s book was barely dry and The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Nov. 2, 2003 titled “Who Botched the Occupation?” Journalist David Rieff noted: “What went wrong is that the voices of Iraq experts, of the State Department almost in its entirety and, indeed, of important segments of the uniformed military were ignored.”

In Toby Dodge’s view, the parallels between British and American occupations of Iraq are hauntingly similar in their hubris. “The British did not mean to undermine the nascent Iraqi state. But, hobbled by an ideologically distorted view of Iraqi society and facing financial and political limits, they did,” he writes. “The United States in Iraq today must understand that it is both living with the consequences of that failure and is in danger of repeating it.”

As the US military ceremoniously hauled down its flags and staged its last conveys from its last base in Iraq, American historian Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel whose son died in the fighting in Iraq, summed up the dissenting view on the war that the vast majority of the American people came to embrace, despite the still simmering bout of war fever in Washington:

“Yet few of those defenders have demonstrated the moral courage—or is it simple decency—to consider who paid and what was lost in securing Saddam's removal,” Bacevich wrote in an essay posted recently on the CNN World website. “That tally includes well over four thousand U.S. dead along with several tens of thousands wounded and otherwise bearing the scars of war; vastly larger numbers of Iraqi civilians killed, maimed, and displaced; and at least a trillion dollars expended—probably several times that by the time the last bill comes due decades from now. Recalling that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to al-Qaeda both turned out to be all but non-existent, a Churchillian verdict on the war might read thusly: Seldom in the course of human history have so many sacrificed so dearly to achieve so little.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

Writing the Way Home

Across America, a special gift is arriving at numerous homes this week. This gift is a new book by Warrior Writers titled After Action Review: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans of the Global War on Terror.

What makes this book decidedly different from so many other gifts this holiday season is three-fold: its handcrafted artistry by young men and women who turned sleepless nights and troubled days into making art with hands that for too long held war weapons; its funding by dozens of supporters who collectively chipped in thousands of dollars to pay for the printing and postage; and its timing—published just as the war in Iraq was officially declared over and the last US military units departed that war-savaged land.

Here at home, a great many veterans of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are trying to turn off unrelenting war memories. Some try chasing off nightmares with hard drinking, drugs, death-defying lifestyles. Some find nothing seems to work. As Zach LaPorte, a former Army Ranger who served twice in Iraq, writes in a poem titled “Spliced”:

My life is like a slide show, spliced with images of the desert.
Mom asks me if I like the potatoes,
     A woman shrieks from a bloodied mouth.
My Professor hands me an exam paper,
     I’m riding in the door of a Blackhawk.
I walk alone at night past neon signs,
     Crimson tracers snap so close you could touch.
I sit in my air-conditioned cubicle,
     The blood in my brain boils.
The scars run deeper than they appear.

LaPorte’s poem is a troubling, yet heartening example of what the Warriors Writers project and this anthology are about: writing war images and injuries out, releasing them to the light of day, shared with those who care, aired to help heal hidden torments that long ago were called “soldier’s heart.”

"It's hard to overestimate how writing can heal long scarred over wounds that every veteran inevitably has,” Josiah White, a former Marine who was wounded by a suicide bomber, writes in a quote displayed on the back cover. “These stories and poems also have the power of communicating a near impossible message to non-veterans, those hurt by war, those hurt by tragedy, anyone who has ever suffered and asked the question ‘why?’ No one will read this book and come away unchanged."

With the 10-year war in Afghanistan still raging and flailing dangerously into Pakistan, this book raises veterans’ concerns that extend far beyond the mission in Iraq that just ended. In the Foreword, Brian Turner—author of one of the first poetry books to come out of the war in Iraq, Here, Bullet—writes that the works in this anthology “seem to suggest that we would be wise to take stock of where we are now, as a country.”

Many of the pieces in this collection by more than 60 contributors focus on an incident that triggered disconcerting change in perspective in the midst of military life. In a poem titled “Happy Birthday,” Zachariah Dean writes about suddenly realizing he just turned 26 as death whizzes by in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan in which his rifle is jammed by a defective bullet. Scrambling to fix the rifle, it hits him how carelessly he’s led his life to end up in such a desperate jam. "I wrote this in a hurry in a machine gun turret several nights later,” he notes in the poem, stunned by the surreal experience. “Try to burn it out of memory by putting it on paper…"

Others focus on trying to find a thread that may bring deeply sought change for the better in a veteran’s life. In a sardonic welcome home for himself and other veterans, Garett Reppenhagen wrote in a poem titled “Black Out Drive”:

Heeeey, welcome home brother.”
Just grip that wheel hero.
Stay alert, stay alive.
The real war has just started,
Your fight to survive.

Jacob George, who served three tours in Afghanistan with the Army, reaches out to fellow Americans in a poem titled “Support the Troops”:

don’t thank me for what I’ve done

give me a big hug
and let me know
we’re not going to let this happen again
because we support the troops
and we’re gonna bring these wars to an end 

Unlike collections of writings by warriors of previous wars, women veterans take a prominent role in this anthology. Air Force veteran Kristina Vogt captures the bizarre military bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that she describes as, from a female perspective, creating “the womb of the WoMD” (weapons of mass destruction)—the official reason for invading Iraq, which became as illusive as a desert mirage.

“I am the savage,” writes Emily Yates, who served two combat tours in Iraq, describing bursting into “proud homes” looking for elusive enemies, where women and children “stand in the doorway with fearful faces,” while she the armed American soldier wields “the weapon of ignorance … the shield of arrogance,” speaking with “the voice of entitlement….”

Former Army sergeant Robynn Murray, in a poem titled “Eviscerated,” throws the disillusionment of serving in terrorizing raids on Iraqi civilians directly at war supporters back home:

I am your walking wounded broken toy soldier,
and your flag is burning and all your yellow ribbons have fallen down.
I cut open these festers to force your eyes to see the truth so damn it, LOOK!
Look at what has become of me, of us.

I will gladly reopen these wounds if there is change that will come of it.
So that no one else receives these scars. …

Woven throughout the poetry and essays in this collection is an arresting gallery of often startling artwork. These include an American flag made of bullet casings (“Bullet Flag” by Lars Ekstrom); a toy soldier inside a prescription bottle (“Trapped” by Malachi Muncy); and a drawing of a walking skeleton with flaming oil derricks crowning the skull (“Greed Walks” by Eric Estenzo).

Many of the works in this book address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Chantelle Bateman, a Marine veteran of Iraq, writes about “anger is the color I sometimes paint the town with … louder than incoming and the sirens they play when I hit the deck … I’m just a pile of tears needing to punch you”. Another former Marine, Jon Turner, punches at everything in sight in Iraq and back home in a string of explosive, insightful, drunken, cold sober images of human encounters, rejections, attempts at reaching out that ends with these lines:

In the unwritten letters and poems—
are the hidden faces of war

Several pieces reach breathtakingly out of inner turmoil to find an uplifting path. “I desire to trust life,” writes former Marine Liam Madden, “to cultivate my unique and needed gifts/Loving with abandon/ I intend to weave a web of gratitude into my community.” His poem “Intention” is the first in the book, followed by a wide array of perspectives drawn from a decade of war. The last poem is called “Brio,” in which Army veteran Maggie Martin, who served twice in Iraq, joins others in various civic actions:

I sow community in re-acquisitioned places,
Crowded city street, marching orders, protest song,
Our hands and mouths’ unsinkable strength.

Old constructs crumble and blow away,
new consciousness takes root.

The concluding section showcases photos of veterans at Warrior Writers workshops in cities around the country, accompanied by a quote by Eli Wright, a former Army combat medic: "I used to write before I went to Iraq, but when I got over there, I wasn't able to write. So through Warrior Writers I have been able to slowly begin to find my words again and share my experiences and what happened over there. It's been a healing experience."

The nearly 200-page anthology was compiled and edited by Lovella Calica, the director of Warrior Writers, which is based in Philadelphia, PA, with the assistance of a number of contributors and supporters. I aided the project as an advisor and copy editor. The book was artfully designed by Rachel McNeill, an Army veteran who included thought-provoking photos shot on patrols in Iraq by herself and others. A series of drawings and paintings titled “Dust Works” by Army National Guard veteran Aaron Hughes provides a visual theme of roads through war on the cover and throughout the book.

After Action Review (paperback, $20) is the third in a series of anthologies of writing and art by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans published by Warrior Writers, and is available at

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Holidays


Artwork on this greeting card was designed by Walt Nygard, a fellow Vietnam veteran; typesetting on the back is by Eli Wright, an Iraq war vet. 
The cards were handmade and printed by Walt, Eli and me at the Printmaking Center 
of New Jersey as part of a Combat Paper workshop.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Commitment to Uncovering Local Environmental Issues

toxic sites map/North

The headlines in a recent newspaper series unveiled a shocking story: “DEP let poison flow for decades” … “North Jersey riddled with failed cleanups” … “Desperate to move, but bound to stay; Residents say homes in Superfund site are worthless.”

Got your attention? That’s the intent of the “Toxic Landscape” series that The Record, a daily newspaper in northern New Jersey, has instituted as an on-going investigative look at industrial contamination lingering in local communities in its coverage area. Here’s the opening salvo in a three-part expose by Record environmental writer Scott Fallon that burst from the front pages recently:

A highly toxic industrial chemical has been spreading under a Garfield neighborhood for almost three decades, slowly seeping into homes and threatening the health of thousands.

Residents live in fear that hexavalent chromium is infiltrating their basements, that their families could get cancer and that their property values have been destroyed.

And state officials allowed it all to happen.

What occurred in Garfield over the course of 28 years is a story of an environmental oversight system that failed the people it was supposed to protect. In instance after instance, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection showed poor judgment, lax enforcement and bureaucratic indifference to an emerging public health threat…

After detailing the spreading contamination through groundwater under an urban neighborhood and the startling lack of government action even after a city firehouse was closed in 1993 due to the hazardous substance seeping into the basement, Fallon’s report widened the scope of the problem to encompass many more communities:

“Garfield is one of the more egregious examples of failed environmental oversight. But all over North Jersey there are botched cleanups caused by questionable decisions, bureaucratic indifference or both,” Fallon wrote. "’There are Garfields in literally every corner of this state,’ said Robert Spiegel, head of Edison Wetlands, an environmental advocacy group. ‘The system for cleaning thousands of sites has been dysfunctional, chaotic, and it just doesn’t work,’" Fallon’s report added, after listing a number of failed, incomplete or barely ever started contamination investigations and cleanups in North Jersey towns that have been periodically in and out of the news.

The back story behind this unusual newspaper series—which began last year with a detailed examination of unfinished cleanups at several federal Superfund sites across the region—is a recognition by The Record’s editors and publisher that hazardous waste cleanups habitually stall when there’s no on-going, in depth news coverage.

That realization was crystallized by a previous investigative series in 2005 called “Toxic Legacy,” which showed how the US Environmental Protection Agency allowed Ford Motor Company to claim it had cleaned up a toxic waste dump in the late 1980s in Ringwood, NJ. The newspaper investigation, which I participated in as a reporter, uncovered the fact that the officially approved cleanup barely scratched the surface of buried mounds of lead-based paint sludge and other potentially cancer-causing contamination that local residents, environmental groups and newspaper reporters found and made public.

A far more substantial cleanup has taken place since that investigative series, with every step reported by local newspapers, sometimes bird-dogged by national news organizations and further exposed to a wide television audience by a documentary shown on HBO titled “Mann v. Ford,” after the name of a lawsuit by residents of the affected residential area.

Yet, despite the residents’ lawsuit, the renewed cleanup in Ringwood stalled once the initial flurry of news coverage subsided. Record editors then expanded the “Toxic Legacy” coverage into on-going, frequent update reports published under the same label.

“The [initial] story was about the government’s failure to live up to its promise,” Tim Nostrand, The Record’s editor for investigative projects, told a gathering in September at Columbia University’s Journalism School that honored new and past winners of the Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment. The “Toxic Legacy” investigative team led by Nostrand won the 2006 Grantham Prize, among a number of other national journalism awards.

Once congratulations on winning major awards are collected, news organizations usually ease off covering that topic and move on. But Record editors found their readers appreciated the “Toxic Legacy” coverage. And they found that government officials slipped back into old habits once that coverage eased off. “We did a five-year look back and found history repeating itself. We’re now staying on top of that,” Nostrand added in his account of how one investigative project morphed into a long-term commitment.

On top of reporting every new twist and turn in the Ringwood Superfund site case, six years after publishing a series that shook up the EPA, Record editors have assigned municipal reporters to dig into environmental contamination issues in the towns they cover, Nostrand told the audience of award-winning journalists, journalism professors and students at Columbia. Previously, as was my experience during a more than 20-year career at The Record, municipal reporters often ignored environmental issues unless they were prepared to wrangle with editors to provide time from the relentless pressure to file daily news stories in order to dig into often complex, hidden contamination problems.

The latest in The Record’s remarkable “Toxic Landscape” local reports rolled out this week. The first day’s headline conveyed a double drum-roll: “DPW cleanup tab put at $200,000; Decades-old pollution ‘ignored’ mayor says.” And thus residents of Dumont, NJ were told about the mounting costs of inaction by local officials and the state environmental protection agency in dealing with contamination from leaking gasoline storage tanks at the municipal Department of Public Works property dating back to the 1980s.

A Dumont Borough Council subcommittee trying to get to the bottom of why nothing was done, despite a DEP order in 1992 to do a cleanup, got some astounding responses, Record reporter Rebecca D. O’Brien found. A former councilman who served in 2004-2009 said “We never discussed any issues of any gasoline spills or any contamination down at that site,” O’Brien reported in her second-day article.

Another former councilman who served in 2003-2008 put this kind of investigative story into glaring perspective, when he testified that “he didn’t even know about the DPW contamination until he read about it in the newspaper,” O’Brien added.

So that readers can follow the newspaper’s probing into the tangled, toxic mess underlying much of the Garden State, The Record offers on its web site a special projects section titled “Toxic Landscape: Tracking contaminated sites in North Jersey,” which provides interactive maps and hotlinks to an extensive list of investigative articles on local contamination sites.

For more information:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Would Woody Say?

Sharleen Leahey (center) in concert

“Woody Guthrie spoke plain
About deportees and dust bowl days…

So what would Woody write?
Right now in these hard times”

That’s the sobering, yet enticing question that activist-songwriter Sharleen Leahey raises in her new CD collection, entitled “Rumors of Peace.” What would the “Poet of the People” who sang about plain folks’ hard lives during the Great Depression make of America today? With dobro, fiddle and guitar pickin’, reelin’ and strummin’ bluegrass, folk, country and gospel airs, Leahey offers her take on the times in a foot-thumping tribute to Guthrie.

“Now it’s time to speak plain
 About bailed-out bankers having their way
While families are forced to move
People sick and tired of being attacked
Are standing up trying to fight back…
But the boss is getting richer as we go broke
They’re taking our jobs and our homes and our hope
Say Woody…has that much really changed?”

In a song titled “Corporate News,” she lambasts “CNN & Fox – talking heads who shock/ Fair & balanced they declare/ Dissenting voices kicked off the air.” Leahey lets loose, knowing she won’t be invited to appear on any mainstream television talk show any time soon. And neither will anyone else who doesn’t improve the corporate bottom line. Her chorus line to that damning fact goes: “And you know the rich men break the rules/ And oooh how they pull the wool/ And they think we’re fools/ Democracy is what we lack/ Free speech has been hijacked.”

So like Woody Guthrie, she takes what she’s got to say to people at the grassroots, singing at peace demonstrations, teach-ins, conferences, fairs, coffeehouses, bookstores, libraries, museums, churches. Sharleen Leahey, who grew up in New York City and now lives in suburban New Jersey, gets around with her guitar and her protest songs to places where the corporate-branded and approved entertainers on TV talk and squawk shows haven’t a clue as to what’s going on.  

Here’s how she prefaced a recent performance at a small-town event: “Before singing ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ she said Mr. Guthrie wrote the song as an ‘anti-God Bless America’ song because he didn’t like how ‘God Bless America’ says God blesses the United States, but not other countries,” noted a news story in The Cranbury (NJ) Press in August. “‘Woody was defined by the Great Depression,’ she said. ‘He was one of us, a hard worker. He was an activist.’”

Other songs on her new CD address a vision for peace in the Middle East (Jerusalem – a cover written by Steve Earle), embracing the wonders of Nature (Wonder) and opening to personal and planetary change (Direction). A photo caption for her receiving, in July, a Peace Patriot Award from the Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton, NJ succinctly captured her song writing spirit: “For many years Sharleen has organized and performed at countless rallies, vigils and events to call attention to our urgent need to end our nation’s wars and occupations overseas and address our crises here at home.”

A couple of generations back, that kind of talk would have gotten a songwriter summoned to a grilling by the House Un-American Activities Committee. These days, it’s an invitation to join a picket line at the White House—as Leahey did at a recent Occupy Washington protest march.

For more information:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

At the Movies: Rising Up Down South

The myriad marches, sit-ins, camp-ins and other protest demonstrations sweeping across America these days didn’t spring up out of nowhere. Such actions against entrenched injustice were honed in the civil rights movement that shook up authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. That movement energized and inspired a groundswell of grassroots movements against the war in Vietnam, for women’s liberation from stultifying traditions, against environmental destruction and for safer working conditions, among other heated issues of the time.  

For those who’ve forgotten or never knew what that earlier era of dissent was about, I’d recommend viewing You Got to Move: Stories of Change in the South, a documentary by Lucy Massie Phenix that’s just been re-released on DVD. This is the story of a nonviolent uprising that effectively challenged racial discrimination laws, night-riding Ku Klux Klan gunmen, police who beat African American citizens trying to register to vote, blatant dumping of industrial waste into water supply streams and other arrogantly authoritarian customs of the time in southern states still clinging—a century later—to calcified attitudes of the post-Civil War era.  

 “This film brought me face to face again with some of the people I most admire, those 'ordinary,' 'plainfolks’ people who see the wrong that exists so clearly they can't rest without doing something about it,” Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, said of this film.  The black and white activists profiled in the film are down to earth, still feisty despite advancing age, and memorably articulate about what spurred them into action.

“There comes a time when people stop thinking about what happened to them and start thinking about what they are going to make happen,” said a woman involved in the civil rights movement, which repeatedly took a beating in sit-ins, marches, bus rides and bus boycotts until federal laws were changed and Southern states elected a different assortment of public officials—many of whom today are African Americans, whose ancestors were denied the right to vote.  

“I learned that you don’t quit when you’re denied—you keep on going and try something else,” said another protest organizer, who banded together with fed-up neighbors and backpacking college students in an effort to save a landmark mountain in Kentucky from being deforested, blasted and bulldozed into a massive strip mine for coal.

“We can’t leave it up to somebody else to save it. We’ve got to. We’ve got to say ‘no more,’” said a third activist who helped lead a community revolt against the dumping of hazardous chemical wastes in a remote Appalachian corner of Tennessee.  

The DVD of Phenix’s 1985 documentary was recently released by Milliarium Zero, a New Jersey based distributor of independent American and foreign art films and social issues documentaries. With an eye on attracting the current generation of students and teachers, the DVD version “memorializes the 50th anniversary of the Albany Movement — a landmark in the history of American civil rights activism — which was led by students, including Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of the a cappella group Sweet Honey In the Rock and a nationwide leader for human rights) who appears in the film,” notes the distributors.

As the documentary shows through period film clips, photos, folk songs and flashbacks by an array of participants, challenging authority to change from protecting exploitative practices to championing democratic improvements on the premise of the Declaration of Independence has a deeply inspirational, illustrative history in this country. 

For more information:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Planting a Peace Pole

Jules Orkin and Puffin Peace Pole

Dedicating a Peace Pole at a community cultural center in Teaneck, NJ drew a small crowd of local officials, school children and war veterans the other day.

The carved wood pole was dedicated at the Puffin Foundation, as a band from Thomas Jefferson Middle School played and adults took turns exhorting the students and a television audience via a cable news program to help advance a cause that is often hard to hear in a nation engaged in seemingly perpetual war in various corners of the world.

“A world without war is a universal desire by untold millions of people,” Puffin Foundation Executive Director Gladys Miller-Rosenstein said on behalf of herself and her husband Perry Rosenstein, a retired industrialist and noted philanthropist. “We have sought to have our voices for peace heard. We have erected a ‘Peace Pole’ on our property. This pole will be shared by many young and old, who will take part in the varied cultural activities at our Forum. … There are presently 264 peace sites throughout New Jersey. We are proud to be one of the new sites in our state.”

“This is a community peace pole,” added Neil Rosenstein, vice president of the Puffin Foundation. “Peace is only achieved through community.” One of the community leaders, School Superintendent Barbara Pinsak, praised the Rosensteins—whose foundation assists local and regional arts programs, conservation and environmental education programs, as well as social action and investigative journalism projects—as role models. 

“This is one of the things I am very proud to welcome to Teaneck,” said state Senator Loretta Weinberg, a well-known champion for a substantial agenda of domestic issues. “May peace prevail on Earth,” she said, quoting the message on the pole, which is printed in eight languages. “It is not an easy goal. It’s a long struggle.”

The idea of planting a peace pole at the Puffin Foundation, which hosts an eclectic collection of outdoors sculpture, was proposed by Jules Orkin, a member of Veterans For Peace, Chapter 21 New Jersey. A retired bookstore owner from neighboring Bergenfield, Orkin was named a Puffin Peace Fellow earlier this year in recognition of his participation in numerous peace walks, vigils and civil disobedience actions in protest of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his comments, Orkin proposed organizing “a walk between peace poles,” such as the annual walk in neighboring Leonia between peace poles at the high school and the Methodist Church to mark the United Nations International Day of Peace. And then he was off to pack for a peace walk from Atlanta, Georgia to Ft. Benning, Georgia to protest the training program based there for military officers from Latin American nations that until recently were bastions of military dictatorships.

Walt Nygard, vice president of Veterans For Peace Chapter 21, spoke about transforming Veterans Day to the original, peacemaking intent of Armistice Day.   

Township Councilwoman Barbara Toffler offered an historic note of hope for peaceful change in the world. “There is a legacy of peace in Teaneck,” she said, holding up a copy of Teaneck High School’s 1959 yearbook. “The Class of 1959 dedicated its yearbook to peace,” she said, reading from that dedication, composed amid the Cold War nuclear missile stand-off with the Soviet Union by students who were born during World War II.

Peace Poles grew out of a project of The World Peace Prayer Society that began in Japan in 1955 as a response to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For more information:

Monday, November 14, 2011

Weather Wise

Oct. 29, 2011  Teaneck, NJ  (photo/Jan Barry)

Early Warning

Winter dropped from the October sky
Two days before Halloween—
Tree branches smothered in snow
On summer leaves snapping deep into the night
Made darker by downed power lines

Global warming! skeptics scoffed—
As this part of suburban civilization
Staggered for days without electricity,
Closed schools, postponed Halloween
Until tangled wires and lives are restored

--Jan Barry

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Celebrating Drew Cameron’s Healing Art

Drew Cameron
Remarks I gave at “Envisioning Tomorrow,” the Printmaking Center of New Jersey's awards dinner at the Somerville Elks Lodge, Bridgewater, NJ on November 12. The center honored Drew Cameron, the co-founder and co-director of Combat Paper, “a touring project with a compelling mission to use the healing power of art to transform the shattered lives of young veterans.”

I first encountered Drew Cameron three years ago at Rutgers University, where I was teaching a journalism class. He and several fellow Combat Papermakers were conducting workshops at the Brodsky Center in New Brunswick, turning military uniforms into posters and chapbooks of art and poetry, culminating in a jam-packed poetry reading. I went to the first workshop intending to spend a day—and ended up returning all week, intrigued by the interaction of vets, students, art instructors and passersby.

Though my intention was to observe and write about this fascinating project, I was pulled into the middle of it by Drew’s infectious invitation to join in. Presented the opportunity to cut up a desert warfare uniform, I found it very satisfying to disassemble an official symbol of military might. I wished I still had one of my Vietnam uniforms to slice up!

Many veterans have returned from war so angry, disillusioned, disgusted that they threw their uniforms away. After serving in Iraq, Drew decided to slice his war uniform off while filming his defiant act of performance art and turning the startling images into postcards and posters. This angry artwork was hand-printed on paper made of rag pulp from the shredded uniform. The genius of this idea to physically transform a war uniform into primary elements of papermaking art is that it is cathartic, as well as creative.

Through Drew’s networking and prodigious traveling, Combat Paper workshops and their thought-provoking art have appeared at scores of colleges and arts institutions across the USA and overseas. He has planted seeds of this cathartic art in many places and woven a new social fabric linking many war-torn hearts. As Drew notes on the Combat Paper web site: “From each new participant, I take a piece of fabric and mix it into the lineage pulp. This pulp is then mixed in with each new batch of pulp, so a little piece of each vet’s uniform is in every new piece of paper made.”
Another participant in the Rutgers workshops who also was deeply touched by the experience that Drew offers vets is Eli Wright. Eli has followed Drew’s path by serving as Co-Director of the Printmaking Center’s Combat Paper Program. As Eli said three years ago: “We’re all going through many changes in this project… I was a medic. I enlisted in the military to save lives, not take them. … This project saves lives, it gives us direction—to find we can build bridges and tear down those walls and remake sense of our lives.”

What an arts project—to inspire war veterans to live more creatively. Last year, I dropped by a Combat Paper workshop at the Printmaking Center and ended up hand-making, hand-printing and hand-stitching a chapbook of new poems I wrote, that were inspired by conversations with Drew and other Combat Papermakers. Last winter, I traveled to Buffalo, NY in a snowstorm to work with Drew on a poster for an arts event I was organizing. Here’s the result—a poster designed by Drew that highlights key words in my “Costs of War” poem by using an amazing woodcut design printed on recycled military uniforms.

For such hands-on, hands-down creative work that has inspired so many people through art, I’m honored to present Drew Cameron with PCNJ’s Erena Rae Award in Art and Social Justice!    

For more information:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Saving America

Harvard law prof''s message
Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have a lot in common, not least of which is an historic mission to save the America that every public school class, politician and public officeholder pledges allegiance to. That’s the message that Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig is taking around the country in lectures, blogs and a new book titled Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It.

Lessig is a former Reagan Republican and Obama Democrat whose latest foray into the political sphere has been hailed as “the manifesto of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” That is how he was introduced recently to a large audience at Ramapo College of New Jersey that crowded into an evening lecture swollen with students at the state college in Mahwah, NJ and senior citizens from surrounding suburban communities.

These days in the United States created by our revered Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Franklin, our “government is an embarrassment to most of us,” Lessig thundered, undeterred by a faulty sound system. “This is not an issue of Left or Right,” he added, noting that nearly 90 percent of the American people have lost confidence in Congress, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  

In a Huffington Post blog posted a few days earlier, Lessig summarized his on-the-road lecture in three concise points: 

“For there is a common ground between the anger of the Left and the anger of the Right: That common ground is a political system that does not work. A government that is not responsive, or -- in the words of the Framers, the favorite source of insight for our brothers on the Right -- a government that is not, as Federalist 52 puts it, ‘dependent upon the People alone.’

“Because this government is not dependent upon ‘the People alone.’ This government is dependent upon the Funders of campaigns. 1% of America funds almost 99% of the cost of political campaigns in America. Is it therefore any surprise that the government is responsive first to the needs of that 1%, and not to the 99%?

“This government, we must chant, is corrupt. We can say that clearly and loudly from the Left. They can say that clearly and loudly from the Right. And we then must teach America that this corruption is the core problem -- it is the root problem -- that we as Americans must be fighting.”

In his campus lecture in New Jersey, Lessig drew a big round of applause when he said: “Revolutions happen in waves. The first wave was the 2008 election of Obama [who eloquently addressed this problem as a candidate]. Wave two was the Tea Party movement. The third crest is the Occupy Wall Street movement. My view is that each of these waves is linked. Each of these waves is driven by the grassroots.”

In his book, Lessig cites numerous studies showing the massive flows of corporate money cascading into congressional election campaigns and fielding armies of lobbyists flooding the halls, hearing rooms and offices of Congress in recent years. This money was used to buy votes or influence to tilt government policies and actions to financially favor the funders’ economic interests, he argues.

“My sense is that too many on the Right make the same mistake as many on the Left. They assume that change happens when you win enough votes in Congress,” he wrote. Not so, he argues, because “the current system of campaign funding radically benefits the status quo—the status quo for private interests and the status quo of the Fund-raising Congress.” That’s why both Republicans and Democrats in Congress voted to bail out Wall Street banks whose unregulated gambling spree drove the national economy over a cliff, he argues. And now both Obama and his Republican presidential opponents are trolling for mega-buck Wall Street donations to their campaigns.

Lessig’s proposed solution is to marshal a movement of “nonpolitician candidates” in both Democratic and Republican primaries to challenge congressional incumbents, support a new crop of reform presidential candidates, and mount a grassroots campaign for a constitutional convention with a mandate to limit the amount of money anyone can contribute to a candidate for Congress.

“I’m not sure that any of these strategies would work,” Lessig told Rolling Stone in a recent interview, “but if there is one that will work, it will have to be on different territory than the one lobbyists and members of congress now control. I think that the real challenge is we’re not used to exercising power as citizens anymore. We’ve been passive listeners to television commercials for too long, and not really active producers of democracy.”

To help spur civic activism on this issue, Lessig co-founded a nonprofit organization called Fix Congress First, which promotes an activist project call Rootstrikers that does outreach via a website, facebook and twitter.

For more information:

Friday, October 28, 2011

The War at Home

Scott Olsen (photo/AP)

In Boston, Massachusetts and Oakland, California, Veterans For Peace members have been assaulted by police while peacefully demonstrating on behalf of Occupy Wall Street protest groups’ constitutional rights.

The most seriously injured is Scott Olsen, a Marine vet of two tours in Iraq, who was hospitalized with head injuries after police in Oakland fired tear-gas canisters and other projectiles into an Occupy Oakland crowd assembled in front of City Hall. Olsen was wearing a Veterans For Peace T-shirt and desert camouflage field jacket and hat when he was struck in the forehead. He is also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

“It was like a war zone,” Joshua Shepherd, a fellow vet who was standing near Olsen while dressed in his Navy uniform and holding aloft a highly visible, white Veterans For Peace flag, told The Associated Press. “Shepherd said it’s a cruel irony that Olsen is fighting for his life in the country that he fought to protect. ‘He was over there protecting the rights and freedoms of America and he comes home, exercises his freedoms and it’s here where he’s nearly fatally wounded,’ Shepherd said.”

In Boston, police knocked down, clubbed and tore Veterans For Peace and an American flag from the hands of a group of peace activist vets standing between the police assault and an Occupy Boston encampment the authorities set out to destroy. Among those dragged off to a paddy wagon was Rachel McNeil, an Army vet who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and was holding an American flag. Her crime: “Rachel loudly and continuously led a chant of the Oath (I do solemly swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic); but she alternated it with ‘We have a permit.  It's called the Constitution’ and also ‘This is a peaceful demonstration,”" a fellow Vets For Peace member noted.

Rachel McNeil (right) and fellow VFP members
“VFP members are involved with dozens of these local ‘occupy movement’ encampments and we support them fully,” VFP national officers stated.  “In Boston, for example, our members, wearing VFP shirts and carrying VFP flags, stood between a line of police and the encampment, urging police to ‘join the 99%’ and not evict the protesters.  In that case, several of our members were banged and bruised when the police decided instead to carry out their eviction orders…
“As with virtually every example of the occupy movement across the country, those encamped were conducting themselves peacefully beforehand, protesting current economic, social and environmental conditions in the U.S. brought about by decades of corporate control, a criminal financial industry and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are driving the U.S. global empire into bankruptcy.  These ‘occupy movement’ participants are telling us something we need very desperately to hear.  They should be listened to, not arrested and brutalized.

“Police in the majority of cities are acting with restraint and humanity towards the encampments, but Veterans For Peace will not be deterred by police who choose to use brutal tactics.  In fact, as happens with repression everywhere, more people join the cause.”    

Indeed, as The New York Times reported today, “the wounding of an Iraq war veteran … has provided a powerful central rallying point.” Thousands of people streamed into downtown Oakland the next day for a peaceful gathering on behalf of the Occupy Oakland movement. The mayor of Oakland commended the movement’s goals. The police promised an investigation into what caused Olsen’s injuries. News reports and videos taken at the time show what happened.

“ Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq, stood calmly in front of a police line as tear gas canisters that officers shot into the Occupy Oakland protest Tuesday night whizzed past his head,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported today.

"’He was standing perfectly still, provoking no one,’ said Raleigh Latham, an Oakland filmmaker shooting footage of the confrontation between police and hundreds of protesters at 14th Street and Broadway. ‘If something didn't hit him directly in the face, then it went off close to his head and knocked him down.’ The something was a projectile that apparently came from police lines, fractured Olsen's skull and put him in Highland General Hospital. Doctors upgraded his condition Thursday from critical to fair, and said they expect him to make a full recovery.”

Like many members of Vets For Peace, Scott Olsen felt it was important to demonstrate the peaceful presence of military veterans at the Occupy Wall Street encampments that have sprung up around the country. As The Associated Press noted in a report carried by Business Week and news publications nationwide, Olsen “makes a good living as a network engineer and has a nice hillside apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay. And yet, his friends say, he felt so strongly about economic inequality in the country that he fought for that he slept at a San Francisco protest camp after work.

"’He felt you shouldn't wait until something is affecting you to get out and do something about it,’ said friend and roommate Keith Shannon, who served with Olsen in Iraq.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

From Making War to Book Making

Tearing a leaf from Edgar Allan Poe’s literary leave from the US Army, a similarly brash band of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans called Warrior Writers is raising money from friends, family and fellow vets to publish a collection of their own poetry, prose and art drawn from military experience.  

Poe parted company with the US Military Academy at West Point in 1831 and published a collection of his poetry with funds provided by fellow cadets. A new crop of soldiers-turned-poets, writers and artists is currently seeking assistance to raise sufficient funds by Veterans Day to publish a new anthology compiled by the Warrior Writers Project. Their goal is to publish this eclectic collection of works by more than 60 veterans in December, just in time to celebrate the official winding down of US military operations in Iraq.

Having seen much of the work in this book-in-progress as an advisor to this project, it very much reminds me of the astounding and still memorable voices and images that emerged from Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans and Demilitarized Zones: Veterans after Vietnam, which were published in a similar do-it-ourselves fashion in 1972 and 1976, thanks to many friends who contributed funds and helped sell copies across the country. 

"Through our writing and art workshops, veterans are able to share their military experiences, receive support from other veterans and connect with their community,” notes the Warrior Writers group of this hands-on project by young men and women who aid each other in creatively forging new lives in the wake of military service in the current controversial wars, which they have much to say about.

Would you shed one drop of blood
   for the gallons that we've given,
would you last one day in the conditions
   we've spent years in?

Ray Camper, an Army National Guard veteran of Iraq from Minneapolis, MN, asks in a poem titled “Letter to the War Presidents.”

I wrote this in a hurry in a machine gun turret several nights later.
Try to burn it out of memory by putting it on paper…

Zachariah Dean, a Marine veteran of Afghanistan, writes in a poem titled “Happy Birthday,” about suddenly realizing he just turned 26 as death whizzes by in the middle of a firefight in which his rifle is jammed by a defective bullet.

Many of the contributors are active in Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace and other protest groups including Occupy Wall Street and offshoot demonstrations across America. Like Walt Whitman, the exuberant song-of-myself poet who was shaken by the carnage he saw in the American Civil War, they convey often blunt public messages tied to their personal stories of surviving the senselessness of modern war, seeking to stir or embrace movements for social change. Here’s how Maggie Martin, a former Army sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, put it in a poem entitled “Brio”:   

I have engaged the power of spring,
buzzing with life-force, ignorant of drought or death,
resilient as meadow grass and morning.
I sow community in re-acquisitioned places,
crowded city street, marching orders, protest song,
unsinkable strength, our hands and mouths.
I have heard the rumble of feet on ground,
drum-beat depth, commencement of the connected,
roll on, advancing steady, through cities hungry,
stirring a hum in open heads and hearts.
Old constructs crumble and blow away,
new consciousness takes root.

Warrior Writers produced two previous anthologies: Re-Making Sense (2008) and Move, Shoot and Communicate, a chapbook published in 2007. Much of the poetry and prose pieces in all three collections were developed in workshops and weekend retreats led by Lovella Calica, the group’s director, who organized book production crews to compile each anthology. Other work, including artwork, was solicited via a Facebook page, the Philadelphia-based group’s website and other outreach.

For further information about the forthcoming anthology, visit and click on the hot link for the Kickstarter contributions page. A copy of the new anthology can be pre-ordered with a $40 contribution.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Protest at Wall Street

Ken Dalton (center) holds VFP banner at Wall St. protest

A contingent of Veterans For Peace and Military Families Speak Out members from New Jersey joined the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York City on Saturday, October 8.

Many in the crowd of young people, older folks who dusted off memories of the protests of the '60s and '70s, and photo-snapping tourists seemed delighted to see the VFP banner unfurled near a corner of Liberty Plaza facing the new office towers being constructed at the site of the former World Trade Center. Among the Jersey contingent was VFP Chapter 21 President Ken Dalton, a Navy vet of the Vietnam war, who worked as a fire fighter in search and rescue operations at Ground Zero in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.

A common question of vets by news reporters who stopped by for a comment was “What do war and Wall Street have in common?” Duh. Millions of unemployed veterans and other folks caught in the web of trillion-dollar wars and an economic collapse that the federal bailout of Wall Street banks was supposed to fix could have told them in a New York minute.

Many of the demonstrators in New York on Saturday eloquently stated the reasons for their dismay in an array of hand-made signs, some of which are shown here.

(Photos by Jan Barry)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Saving Grace

Lake at Arrow Park, NY

Saving a corner of the Earth in its natural state is increasingly hard work. It takes many hands and, often, many organizations. So it was that, the other day, an eclectic crowd of people gathered beside a forest-fringed lake about 38 miles northwest of New York City, to celebrate the latest conservation success story.

For reasons related to recent and legendary events in American history, survivors of the New York City Fire Department’s staggering losses at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, stood besides Native Americans who brought a 20-foot-tall healing totem pole that was carved in Washington State. Leaders of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference in nearby Mahwah, NJ, stood with current and former New York state conservation officials, local municipal officials and private landowners in this remote corner of the Hudson Highlands in Monroe, NY.    

To the beat of a Native American drum, the gathering of about 100 people celebrated the conservation buyout of nearly 260 acres purchased from the privately-owned Arrow Park, to be added to adjacent Sterling Forest State Park, which is part of the Palisades Interstate Park system. The conservation deal was brokered by the Orange County Land Trust with $5.3 million from the State of New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“These projects would never happen without so many people,” said Paul Dolan, executive director of ABC News International and a conservation advocate for the NY-NJ Trail Conference, as a big swath of the audience was called forward to be lauded for their assistance. Dolan and his wife JoAnn, a former executive director of the hiking trails group, previously helped lead a bi-state campaign that preserved some 20,000 acres of open space that became Sterling Forest State Park. Developers had targeted the area with plans to build a sprawling city of housing and industry in the mountain forests that form the headwaters of northern New Jersey’s water supply.

Arrow Park was created in 1948 as a country retreat for a group of Russian, Ukrainian and Polish families living in New York City. Such large tracts of land in the region have increasingly been sold off or subdivided for housing developments.

The gathering at Arrow Park also celebrated the visit of a troupe of American Indians who’d previously  traveled across the country in 2002 to erect a healing totem pole besides the lake in the heart of the park to commemorate the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Now they were passing through with a new healing totem headed for the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

“I was thinking back to nine years ago when we came to this very spot,” said Fred Lane, a filmmaker with the Lummi Indian Nation, which provided both healing totems. “We have to remember our ancestors, our elders. I remember something my father said, ‘What are you going to do to be remembered by?’”

Master carver Jewell James played a song on a wooden flute. “No matter who we are racially or religiously, we are all human beings,” he said. In 2002, James was profiled in a USA Today article on the making of the healing totem for 9/11 victims. He recalled how his tribe had helped him deal with grief when two of his children were killed in traffic accidents. So he decided to help others by carving healing totems. "You never know how much it might help," he said. "This is my gift."

The Orange County Land Trust’s website provides a poignant perspective on what happened in the wake of that gift that the Pacific Coast tribe brought east to Arrow Park. “Recently, the Fire Department of New York’s Counseling Service Unit presented the Orange County Land Trust with an award for leading this successful 10-year campaign to protect Arrow’s land which includes an 80 acre FDNY memorial planting tract. Since 2002, the families of firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty on 9/11 gather at Arrow Park for a tree planting ceremony and day of remembrance.”

In his remarks at last week’s ceremony, Paul Dolan said “Our goal is that this be a place for all different groups to heal.” 

The Orange County Land Trust website explains the genesis of that goal:  “A remaining parcel of 75 plus acres [which includes a rustic complex of buildings] is under active study as a center for programs for children and families by a consortium of non profit sponsors. Currently Calvary Hospital runs a summer camp on this land for children who have experienced the death of a family member. This bereavement program has served over 400 children since it was started 11 years ago.

“Arrow has been the site of recent professional training programs for Orange County organizations working with veterans and their families. Prior programs and events have focused on children of war from Sierra Leone and recreational programs for children with special needs.”

For more information:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Republican Peace Piper

Rep. Ron Paul
Ron Paul is the kind of presidential candidate the American people haven’t seen in a long time—one who’s dead serious about ending overseas military adventures. That’s a stance that is increasingly popular with disgruntled voters across the political spectrum, which could well spell trouble for President Obama. Activists on the left and the right are increasingly fed up with Obama’s military surge in Afghanistan and foot-dragging in getting the remaining troops home from Iraq.

At the Republican presidential candidates’ debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express in Tampa, Florida the other night, Paul drew a thunder roll of applause when he said: “We spend $1.5 trillion overseas in wars we don’t need to be in and we need to cut there. And then put this money back into our economy here.”

This kind of response is rattling the foreign policy establishment. With polls now showing that a majority of Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents want a drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan, one startled foreign policy analyst noted, “in the mid-August Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Ames, Iowa, one of the loudest applause lines was for isolationist Rep. Ron Paul’s demand to ‘bring our troops home.’”

Paul, the controversial, libertarian congressman from Texas, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam war, doesn’t just toss out applause lines. Like Eisenhower, who ended the war in Korea and spent his presidency reining in a rambunctious stable of warhorses, Paul is determined to spell out the fiscal and social consequences of allowing the military-industrial complex to rule the roost.

“We’re under great threat,” Paul continued during the Tampa debate, “because we occupy so many countries. We’re in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world. We’re going broke.”

He continued to press his point even when many in the audience began booing his contention that US military actions overseas stirred up a hornet’s nest of terrorist reactions. “We have to be honest with ourselves. What would we do if another country, say, China, did to us what we do to all those countries over there?” Paul said.

It’s hardly news that Ron Paul has been saying these kinds of things for years. “Opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more generally to U.S. military activity abroad, has been a cornerstone of Paul’s candidacy and sets him apart from the rest of the Republican field,” ABC News noted in a report on its website.

What’s changed is the sharp rise in public unease over the decade-long war the US launched in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by 19 young men from the Middle East on behalf of grievances that are still being hotly disputed.

“Two in three Americans, 65 percent, now want to reduce or withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, up dramatically from 39 percent in 2009, according to the new German Marshall Fund 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey,” noted a blog piece by Bruce Stokes that CNN reposted from YaleGlobal Online.

“A solid majority, 58 percent of Republicans, now want to see U.S. forces in Afghanistan reduced or withdrawn. Such sentiment is up a dramatic 36 percentage points since 2009, according to the GMF survey,” Stokes continued. “Disengagement is even more strongly supported by Democrats (70 percent) and Independents (66 percent), but their swing to that position is less pronounced. Backing for reduction or withdrawal is up 23 points among Independents and 24 points among Democrats since 2009.”

Ron Paul’s stance on military spending, or more likely the tanking poll numbers on public support for the Afghan war, stirred a Greek chorus of war weariness from two other Republican presidential candidates, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Here’s an amen moment in the Republican candidates’ otherwise contentious debate that the liberal Nation magazine ran approvingly on its website: 

Huntsman: We are ten years into this war.… America has given its all in Afghanistan. We have families who have given the ultimate sacrifice. And it’s to them that we offer our heartfelt salute and a deep sense of gratitude. But the time has come for us to get out of Afghanistan. We don’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan nation-building at a time when this nation needs to be built. We are of no value to the rest of the world if our core is crumbling, which it is in this country.

Perry: Well, I agree with Governor Huntsman when we talk about it’s time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can. But it’s also really important for us to continue to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don’t think so at this particular point in time. I think the best way for us to be able to impact that country is to make a transition to where that country’s military is going to be taking care of their people, bring our young men and women home.

Chances are that Obama, who successfully ran in 2008 on a platform of reforming the federal government, will face a Republican challenger next year pressing for real change in the war arena.

For more information:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Peace Beat

 War drums began beating across America before the dust settled at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. 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. 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 revealing his conversion from the war hawk club of liberals beating the drums for military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Aside from this astonishing note of atonement, the bulk of the Times’ massive retrospective in the Sunday newspaper is 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 earlier this year 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 cites is this:

“Last December 16, in a 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. As Nieman Watchdog reported in a previous piece in this series, there were 131 arrests – including a sizable number of veterans of current and past wars – for nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. (This was the most arrests at the White House at any point in 2010.) One of the arrestees had chained himself to the White House fence and another to a lamppost. Additional newsworthy factors: Among those arrested were the nation’s most famous whistleblower (Daniel Ellsberg); a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter (Chris Hedges, the former long-time war correspondent for The New York Times); a much-praised FBI whistleblower (Coleen Rowley); a former CIA analyst who used to prepare daily presidential briefings (Ray McGovern), among others. Additionally, the demonstration seemed newsworthy because it coincided with both the release of the Pentagon’s latest progress report on Afghanistan to President Obama and the results of a new ABC/Washington Post poll in which 60 percent of Americans responded that the Afghanistan war had not been ‘worth fighting.’

“The event was covered by The Huffington Post, the Socialist Worker, OpEd News, 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.
Veterans For Peace protest at White House

 As the Nieman report notes, there’s been a colossal failure of balance in coverage of what’s going on in the world. It’s a cultural failure, as well.       

“It’s been a decade since 9/11, time enough to let go and shift the way we approach our decisions about war, right?  One might think so, but … I’m beginning to question if and when we will choose to let go and imagine a new way forward,” notes James A. Moad II, an Air Force officer whose career as an airline pilot was diverted to military missions by the long war. 

“Like most Americans of drinking age, that September day is seared into my subconscious,” he continued. “As a young commercial pilot back then, I can still remember my own nightmares as I imagined what took place in those cockpits, thinking about an old pilot buddy who’d been murdered there, and more than anything, the feeling of insecurity reverberating out from the rubble of those two towers like great clouds obscuring the future and limiting us, blotting out the imagination necessary to see beyond the anger and destruction.”

Moad’s incisive comments were not conveyed in the New York Times’ galaxy of 9/11 reminiscences, but in a War, Literature & The Arts Blog that he administers.

The internet and community-oriented newspapers provide a vital forum for many voices with a different perspective than the usual sources featured in the national news media.

"One of the outcomes of 9/11 is we need to make the decision about what kind of society we want to be," Andrea Leblanc, whose husband Robert died on United Flight 175 when it smashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, told a local newspaper in New Hampshire, Foster’s Daily Democrat. "What do we want to teach our kids? The story isn't about the fact that for 10 years I've been a widow. It's about the real cost of 9/11. I think this country squandered its moral authority. To me, it's all about peace; what societies are doing to either move toward or away from conflict."  

Leblanc credited fellow 9/11 survivors with providing a compassionate, activist community of support for her anguish.

“An eye opening thing for Andrea through her involvement with September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is the people all over the world who are reaching across borders to converse and share with other cultures,” Foster’s reporter Jennifer Keefe wrote. “She noted the numerous women's networks in Afghanistan and youth networks that reach out via Skype to hold conferences with other youths to talk about love and understanding. The groups and organizations dedicated to forming unity and speaking out in the wake of 9/11 are not in short supply, and demonstrate each day there is a compassion across borders that breaches even the deadliest of wars.”

It’s not hard to find these stories. In Philadelphia, PA, CNN filmed a Saturday night crowd at World CafĂ© Live drawn to an evening celebrating peace and ice cream. “Philadelphia-based Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne partnered with Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, to raise public awareness about federal military spending,” noted CNN’s website report.

“The evening started off on a somber note with Cohen pouring 10,000 BB gun pellets into a metal container to illustrate the power of the United States’ nuclear arsenal in front of a stunned audience. ‘It’s that kind of overkill mentality that drives an out-of-control Pentagon budget,’ he said.” Another part of his demonstration is a tall stack of oreo cookies looming over tiny piles of cookies representing the military vs. everything else in the federal budget’s priorities.

Winding up the evening, Cohen said: “If we’re going to have fewer bombs and more ice cream, we need to shift our budget to what helps people live instead of killing people.”    

The ice cream business maven has traveled the nation and partnered with community activists, business executives, war veterans and many others to present a stunning critique of military spending overseas while the home front economy crumbled. I first saw his BB and cookie demonstration at a journalists’ conference in Vermont five years ago. Video versions from presentations around the country are all over YouTube.    

For more information:

Jan Barry is an award-winning investigative journalist. He has been a peace advocate since resigning from the US Military Academy after serving an Army tour in Vietnam.