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 Café 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.

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