Yesterday, the number of U.S. military deaths since the March 2003 invasion crept over 1,500. … The daily drip of U.S. casualties passes almost unnoticed now, a footnote to the wider slaughter of Iraqis: five policemen killed in two car bombs yesterday, 13 soldiers killed on Wednesday, a judge on Tuesday, at least 115 police and army recruits and civilians on Monday. Some 18,000 civilians are estimated to have died.
–Rory Carroll, The Guardian U.K. Friday, March 4, 2005
It’s so easy not to think about the war in Iraq anymore. First, because all the lies, scandals, rip-offs and atrocities committed in the name of the United States of America are so terrible for people of good will to contemplate–and so confusing to a nation that thinks of itself as standing for justice and liberty. Second, because the consequent madness in Iraq is almost beyond our reckoning–so how can we possibly know what to do about it? And third, because we voted in November in an election that should’ve called the Bush administration to account for its arrogance, incompetence and mendacity; instead, a majority of the voters sided with the president.
Now President Bush tells us that “freedom is on the march,” and the compliant media who attend him–most of whom have never set foot in Iraq–nod their heads in what is either approval or a nap.
Little wonder, then, if Iraq has become “just another story that people seem to have grown comfortable with,” as Kara Hollingsworth, a Fort Bragg soldier’s wife and one of the anti-war “Band of Sisters,” fears.
“The killing continues, but we’re almost inured to it,” says David Potorti of Cary, executive director of Peaceful Tomorrows, created by family members of the victims on 9/11. Potorti’s brother died in the World Trade Center. “Another 25 dead yesterday? So what else is new?”
But even if attention is fading, a majority of Americans now think attacking Iraq was a mistake and we should be getting out. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week, 59 percent believe the U.S. should end the occupation within one year.
And in North Carolina, an Elon University poll showed that while a majority here still think the U.S. invasion was right, we also think–by 55-37 percent–that Bush does not have “a clear plan to bring the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion.”
Time to shake the cobwebs off the opposition and bring it to the surface. This weekend, the fight to end the American occupation of Iraq resumes around the country, with North Carolina taking center stage. “Real Support for the Troops: Bring Them Home Now!” is the theme of the peace march and rally Saturday, March 19, in Fayetteville, at Fort Bragg’s doorstep. Organizers expect it to be the biggest anti-war gathering in the Southeast and one of the biggest nationally outside of New York City.
The Fayetteville rally will also be the one to showcase veterans and military family members who oppose the American occupation, with speakers from such national groups as Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Gold Star Families for Peace coming from as far away as Hawaii. Gold Star Families founder Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, is arriving from Vacaville, Calif.
Going to Fort Bragg is a calculated risk because it’s a conservative town and may generate a sizeable counter-protest. But it’s also a way for the peace movement to confront head-on the notion that anti-war means anti-troops and is anti-patriotic.
It’s the other way around, organizers say.
“I can think of 80 good reasons to go there, and they all come with a name and a tombstone,” says Lou Plummer, a veteran who grew up in Fayetteville and helps lead the local peace committee. That’s how many soldiers the Fayetteville community’s lost, he says. “As far as I’m concerned, what we’re doing in Iraq today is not worth one more life. Not one.”
With their “Home Now!” message, the organizers also hope to puncture the idea that, having smashed Iraq so thoroughly in two wars and a decade of crippling trade sanctions in between–not to mention our prior complicity in Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime–we must now stay and clean up the mess.
Their message: If Americans really understood what’s going on in Iraq, they’d see that our occupation, far from helping to restore order, is the main reason why their terrible situation just keeps getting worse.
In Iraq: About that Purple Finger
“One of the things that we found difficult to hear coming from the peace movement–and we heard this in conversation after conversation after conversation, and it was confirmed by the polling data: Most Iraqis were not opposed to the American presence in their country, and in fact, they welcomed it,” says Peter Lumsdaine. “At first.”
Trying to understand Iraq today by reading the American press is like Alice peering through the looking-glass. Reports of the violence all indicate that it’s escalating, not receding. Yet the press also reports that the Iraqi elections were a great turning point in the direction of democracy.
That’s why Lumsdaine’s visit to Raleigh recently was so instructive for the three dozen anti-war activists who heard him. A veteran peace and justice organizer based in California, he’s also a social researcher with a prickly insistence on accuracy, data and close-up observations. And he’s been to Iraq not once but twice since the invasion. The first time, in the fall of 2003, he went as part of a Christian Peacemaking Team that operated in and around Baghdad. Then, in the spring of 2004, concerned about the lack of American observers on the ground as the Shia uprisings began, he organized the so-called Najaf Emergency Peace Team and traveled through the south of Iraq.
Along with his wife, Meg, a Lutheran minister, and a translator, Lumsdaine says he was able to move about freely, interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life and took a lot of pictures. He came away convinced that the Iraqis are far more ready and able to run their own country than we think, and they are irate at what the U.S. forces are doing to them.
But it didn’t start out that way, Lumsdaine said, narrating his slide show at Raleigh’s Community Church of Christ following a potluck supper. The vast majority of Iraqis, whether Shia, Sunni, Kurds or Christian, were sick of Saddam. Their attitude was, if it took our invading to get rid of him, then all right.
However, they also had a well-founded distrust of U.S. motives, Lumsdaine said, given our long history of support for Saddam’s regime, including letting him crush the Shia and Kurd uprisings that followed the first Gulf War in 1991. So they watched–wary but hopeful–to see what we would do.
By the time he arrived in Iraq six months after the invasion, Lumsdaine said, “They were appalled.”
Operating according to a doctrine of “overwhelming force,” Lumsdaine said, the U.S. military bombed homes and buildings where they thought resisters were hiding, bulldozed crops where snipers might lurk, and if they saw anti-American graffiti on a wall, they knocked it down, too. Tens of thousands of men–90 percent of whom had nothing to do with the resistance, according to the International Red Cross–were arrested and taken to Abu Ghraib or another of the occupation’s huge prisons.
Estimates of the civilian death toll range upward from 18,000, the number documented by Iraqbodycount.org.
Meanwhile, there still was not a single working telephone in Baghdad, a city of 5 million, Lumsdaine said. The economy, terrible before because of the sanctions, was now much worse, with unemployment so high it was unmeasurable and garbage piling up in the streets even as U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority pro-consul Paul Bremer handed out reconstruction contracts, not to Iraqi workers, but to American firms.
Iraqis were reduced to scavenging through the garbage trucks that left the American-controlled Green Zone, where the food we threw away was better than what they had to eat.
Lumsdaine told the story of how Bremer gave the contract to repair the bombed-out electrical grid to Bechtel Corp., which 12 months later had made no progress at all; but Bechtel refused to hire the Iraqi electrical workers who told Lumsdaine they’d fixed worse damage to the grid after the ’91 war in just four months.
He also told about–and showed pictures of–the house he visited in Baghdad where an unarmed man was killed in his kitchen by an American raiding team. The man had been a colonel in the Iraqi Army but, according to Lumsdaine, had been demoted by Saddam prior to the invasion for questioning policy. After the invasion, he’d gone to the Americans, offered his help and was interviewed several times, after which he was given a letter saying that he should be “respected” by our troops.
“The Americans even admitted he wasn’t armed,” Lumsdaine added. “The report only said that he’d resisted.”
So, what about the elections? Were they the turning point the Bush administration claims, or window dressing on a mess, as the critics say?
Lumsdaine thinks both views miss the point. The American occupation is now so hated, and Iraqis are so bitter about it, that it is driving angry young men into the resistance who, but for our presence, would not be part of it.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was essentially right, Lumsdaine believes, when he said early on that the guerilla war being waged mainly by Saddam’s “dead-enders,” plus a few al-Qaida wannabees.
But Rummy’s not right anymore, Lumsdaine says. Now, the resistance–still mainly, but not exclusively, Sunni–is growing in direct proportion to American efforts to stamp it out.
The good news, though, is that the elections, while flawed, have given Iraq “a government that is far more representative of the majority of its people” than anything the country’s experienced for literally thousands of years.
That’s Lumsdaine’s bottom-line message. Shiite Muslims, an oppressed culture in Iraq since the Ottoman Empire despite being a majority of the population, are now positioned to take control of the country. And Lumsdaine thinks they’re prepared to govern responsibly, bringing Kurds and Sunnis into a working federation.
Whether the Americans will allow them to govern is something else again, in his view. He points out how long the Bush administration put off holding the elections, knowing that the Shiites would win them; far from being an American triumph, the elections were held only as a “last desperate concession” to Shiite leaders to forestall an even wider uprising of the populace, he says.
His conclusion dovetails with The Nation writer Naomi Klein’s. Based on her reporting in Iraq, she wrote two weeks ago that the U.S. press had missed the message the Iraqi voters were sending. They were not raising their purple fingers in tribute to us, much as the Bush administration tried to spin it that way, she said. Rather, “Iraqis voted overwhelmingly to throw out the U.S.-installed government of Iyad Allawi, who refused to ask the United States to leave.
“A decisive majority voted for the United Iraqi Alliance; the second plank in the UIA platform calls for ‘a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq,’” Klein wrote.
According to Lumsdaine, the most popular figure in Iraq today is Ayatollah Sistani, the leading Shia Muslim prelate. Second is Muqtada Sadr, the Shia minister who holed up with his followers in Najaf last year in a standoff with American forces that ended with the deal to hold elections–a standoff that Lumsdaine witnessed first-hand.
The Sadr Brigades, named for his father and uncle (both slain by Saddam) and based in the slums of Baghdad, have a tremendous following among the poorest of the poor Shia Muslims, Lumsdaine says, and were willing to fight toe-to-toe, in their running shoes and light armament, against the full panoply of Bradley fighting vehicles and Apache helicopter gunships arrayed against them.
“Don’t underestimate them,” he says. “They will not go away … because they believe there’s a different kind of power that backs their vision.”
Today, Lumsdaine thinks the Shia are “pretending to get along with the Americans and the Americans with them,” but in fact the two sides are headed for a showdown over the continuing occupation.
The underlying reason, he believes, is that the Shia, while a minority of the Muslim world, are the biggest force in Iran and Lebanon, control Syria and are a significant minority force in Saudi Arabia. That combination of countries, if allied under Shia control in Iran, would “pose a huge threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East.”
Iran, after all, is the only Muslim country that has managed to expel a U.S.-backed regime. To stem Iran’s influence and Syria’s, the U.S. will try to stay in Iraq, Lumsdaine predicts. Indeed, there are predictions out there from knowledgeable people (journalist Seymour Hersch, ex-U.N. arms inspector Scott Ritter) that the U.S. is planning to attack Iran in June.
If our troops remain in Iraq for long, Lumsdaine thinks, the Sadr Brigades will again join the resistance–and then the real trouble will start.
At Bragg: Talking Class Warfare
About two dozen volunteers are making plans to work at the Fayetteville rally when I arrive at their meeting in the basement of Durham’s Watts Street Baptist Church on a recent Sunday. “How many people do we expect to come?” one of them asks the others, apparently for my benefit. “A lot of people!” they all say in unison.
So much for predictions. A year ago, on the first anniversary of the invasion, about 1,000 people came to Fayetteville, but last year Fayetteville was just one of many such events. This year, it’s the event, and organizers privately debate how many thousands (one e-mail talked about tens of thousands) it will take to be counted a success.
But it’s not “the score” that will count, Lou Plummer tells them. The important thing is how they act. Plummer mentions the old saw–largely disproven, he notes–of anti-war protesters spitting on Vietnam vets. Regardless, he wants the world to see that in 2005, it’s the Bush administration that’s abusing our troops and the protesters who are on their side.
Leave the snotty signs at home, Plummer says. Walk away from the agitators. Trust the Fayetteville cops to keep order–they’ve been fair in the past.
A little later, when Plummer returns to this theme, it’s apparent why. His wife’s car windows have been shot out, he says off-handedly. “It’s hard work. It’s really hard work” for the small group of peace activists who’ve been at it from the start at Bragg. “You make a mess, you go home to Durham,” he says. “We’re still there.”
Plummer’s been all over the place lately, telling his own story. His father’s a Vietnam War veteran, and he did six years–most of them full-time–in the Army National Guard. He signed papers so his son, Drew, could enlist in the Navy at 17. That was in July 2001. Two months later, 9/11 changed everything.
A high-school graduate and trained as an artillery gunner, Plummer found himself without a lot of relevant skills when he went looking for a new job. He ended up a prison guard in Hoke County, where he stayed for eight years. (He now works for the Cumberland County school system as a computer technician.)
It was the beginning of his re-education. Most of the guards were white. Most of the inmates were black. Same as in the Army. A lot of soldiers are black or brown. They join up for training and education benefits that then frequently don’t materialize. Most officers, meanwhile, are white and middle-class.
Gradually, Plummer joined the group working for a death penalty moratorium, then the peace group at Quaker House in Fayetteville, and then he went to a national anti-war conference in St. Louis, where he met the founders of Military Families Speak Out. When they met him and heard that he lived near Fort Bragg, “everybody’s eyes lit up,” he laughs.
Plummer, who will speak Saturday, avoids tackling Iraq as a geopolitical issue–not that he can’t, but he thinks most people are “basically apolitical,” and it’s hard to talk them out of beliefs that are more emotional than reasoned.
Better, he argues, to talk about the way the politicians use–and misuse–the troops from the comfort of their Washington salons.
In that regard, his son’s treatment is his own best evidence. Drew joined the Navy to become a (submarine) nuclear reactor operator, with the goal of getting a job in Europe later on. Home on leave from the Navy two years ago on the day of the Iraq invasion, he was asked by an Associated Press reporter for a comment. What he said got him convicted of disloyalty under Article 134 of the Code of Military Justice and he was demoted.
“He said the war was about oil, he didn’t think our guys should be dying in Iraq, but he was going to do his duty,” Lou Plummer said. Drew Plummer was recently thrown in a Navy brig after going AWOL. “Being in the military is the only job we have,” his father says, “that if you try to leave it, they throw you in jail.”
Plummer thinks there’s nothing the American occupiers are doing to help Iraq that the Iraqis can’t do for themselves. “To think otherwise, frankly, is just racist,” he says.
The same arguments about preventing chaos kept American forces in Vietnam for years, he recalls. Vietnam today is thriving without us.
Kara Hollingsworth agrees. Her husband, Dante, is an Army Signal Corpsman doing his second tour of duty in Iraq. Not because he wanted to, however. He went over in the first wave with the 18th Airborne Corps, did a year, and when he came home, the orders were already in place to send him back in November for what will be another 12- to 18-month stretch.
He’s against the war, but for him it’s about the guys in his company, Hollingsworth says. “I have more anger. I hate this.” She, too, wants the U.S. out now.
So last fall she campaigned against the war throughout the South and the Midwest as part of a “Band of Sisters” that, at one point, was following Vice President Dick Cheney around from state to state. Now she’s back, living on the base at Bragg, taking college classes in political science and talking about the war with her neighbors.
On the base, a growing number question the war and sense that something’s wrong, she says. But very few support her talking about it off the base, in public. And that what she plans to talk about at the rally.
“My message is about our right to have that conversation, that we can love and support the troops and still have a voice in this,” Hollingsworth says. “But other people are going to speak for us if we don’t speak for ourselves.
Success for her? “It would mean a lot to see a good showing from military families.” An Anguished Debate A good showing from people who oppose the war and Republican policies but think it’s fruitless to speak up and say so is what Shannon Hardy is hoping for.
Hardy, a middle school teacher in Raleigh, is a Democrat who started a Raleigh chapter of Code Pink after hearing its dynamic founder, Medea Benjamin, speak recently.
“Code Pink is fighting for sustainable economies and against the global shift of wealth into the hands of an elite few while wages are falling,” Hardy says. “But in this country, we lack visionary politicians, so people are easily focused on their fears” instead of possible solutions.
Interestingly, Hardy says that before hearing Benjamin, she was persuaded that “for moral reasons” the U.S. should remain in Iraq and help rebuild, even though the invasion was a mistake. But Benjamin, an “out now” proponent, changed her mind.
One reason, Hardy says, is that “now” means different things to different people. “If you start now, it could be 12 to 18 months before you actually get out,” she says. That’s why “now” is the right message.
This question of “we have to stay, we’re responsible” versus “get out now” is crippling the anti-war movement, it seems. Even writer Will Pitt seemingly can’t answer it, as he told the progressive audience at Truthout.org in recent days: “Leave now! is the wrong answer,” Pitt wrote. “But so is Stay!”
“If we stay,” Pitt said, “more civilians and soldiers will die, more bombs will go off, more rage will build, more people over there will become inspired to kill Americans, and billions more dollars will be poured onto the sand.”
But if we leave, he continued, “we risk having the country collapse permanently into a Balkanized state of civil and religious war that will help to create a terrorist stronghold in the mode of Afghanistan post-1989.”
He seemed to lean toward staying.
Two days later, Cindy Sheehan, founder of Gold Star Families for Peace and a scheduled speaker on Saturday in Fayetteville, posted her answer to Pitt. Her group, as the name suggests, consists of about 50 families who’ve lost someone in Iraq.
“I think that our presence in that country,” Sheehan began, “is fueling the insurgency that killed my son; which has also killed many more of America’s sons and daughters (many more than the official count); has maimed almost 30,000 of our kids; and has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and demolished their country …
“And, most importantly and devastatingly, this war is based on lies and betrayals. Not one American soldier, nor one Iraqi should have been killed. Common sense would dictate that not one more person should be killed for lies. One of the people, my son, was more than enough for me and my family. I will live in unbearable pain until I die.”
The whole exchange is worth reading at www.truthout.org, including Pitt’s touching, agonized reply. One reason he raised the question, he said, was to spark renewed debate, because, he added: “I have noticed a level of exhaustion and despair within the progressive community when it comes to Iraq, which frankly drives me up the wall.”
Of course, Pitt’s right, we owe it to the Iraqis to help them rebuild. But it’s also true that the definition of crazy is thinking that if you just keep doing more of the same, you’ll get a different result. For two years, the Bush doctrine of U.S. boots on the ground and Bechtel on the pad has resulted in massive resistance, destruction and death. Time to let the Iraqis take over and bring our troops home, starting now.
A guide to the Fayetteville anti-war protest on Saturday
Bus tickets to Fayetteville are on sale through Thursday: in Raleigh at the Rialto and Colony theaters and at Buddha’s Belly (2112 Hillsborough St.) and Global Village Organic Coffee (2428 Hillsborough St.); in Durham at The Know Bookstore (2520 Fayetteville St.) and Regulator Books (720 Ninth St.); in Chapel Hill at Internationalist Bookstore (405 W. Franklin St.); or call 919-682-9575, 919-782-0667 or 919-667-1362. Find more information at www.ncpeacejustice.org.
Friday, March 18:
Welcome Center opens at 4 p.m. (through 5 p.m. Sunday) at the Rainbow Room, 223 Hay St.
Concert: Hip Hop Against Racist War, featuring Little Brother and Ricanstruction, from 9-11:45 p.m. (doors open at 8 p.m.). Seabrook Park Resource Center, 706 Langdon Ave. $5-$10.
Saturday, March 19
Volunteer trainings begin at 8 a.m. at the Welcome Center.
Gather: 10 a.m. at Cumberland County Health Center, 227 Fountainhead Lane (see www.co.cumberland.nc.us/health/direction.html for directions). Brief rally at 11 a.m.
March: Noon; ends at Rowan Street Park.
Rally: 1-4 p.m. Speakers include: Lou Plummer, Fayetteville Peace With Justice and Military Families Speak Out; Kelly Dougherty, Colorado National Guard MP and co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War; Cindy Sheehan, California mother of slain soldier Casey Sheehan and co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace; Nancy Lessin and Charlie Richardson, Philadelphia parents of Iraq War Marine veteran and co-founders of Military Families Speak Out.
Sunday, March 20
“Southern Organizers’ Gathering: Building Our Communities, Sharpening Our Skills” from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Rainbow Room. First national conference of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and national meetings of Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Families for Peace. Not open to the public; register online ($35) at www.ncpeacejustice.org.