Sorry to have been slacking on the blog. Here’s an article I wrote and forget to post… better late than never!
Kill Team: The Bigger Picture
Dear Mr. Beck: I Shook Hands with the Antichrist
Earlier this week, Michael Lind wrote an article for Salon about the misplaced energy in demeaning alarmists like Glenn Beck.1 Having friends and family who often revere the inflammatory rhetoric of Beck, Palin, Limbaugh, and others as a light in the darkness, the temptation to dwell on and ridicule these figures, ones that have even caused divisions between conservative commentators, is strong. Lind’s point is crucial though: the question is not primarily whether or not Beck’s theories are sane. Actually, the less sane they seem, the more likely it is that these theories are moves of desperation and the more important it is that we should stay focused on the actual issue.
First, however, a short recap of Beck’s theories: global unrest—from revolts in the Middle East to labor protests in Wisconsin—is the precursor to an international Caliphate (Islamic Rule). But on Friday, Beck’s alarms rang even louder; Code Pink, The Muslim Brotherhood, and other ideologically different groups are clearing the way not only for the Caliphate, but also for the “The Mahdi,” who is the prophesized Muslim redeemer. According to Beck, however, this figure is better known to Christians and End Times enthusiasts as “The Antichrist.”2
Does it bother me that Beck preys on his viewer’s fears and biases the way he does? Absolutely, but here is exactly where Lind’s cautions apply: “When progressive opinion leaders wait for conservatives to say something stupid and then pounce on it, they cede the choice of topics in national debate…”1
Sure, there are plenty of insults for Beck’s utilization of logic, study of history, and choice of “expert”3 sources that would apply to his performances. But simply slapping labels on Beck and his friends are a missed opportunity. Prepared for the insults, they’ll call it persecution, gain more sympathy from their followers and dig more entrenched battle lines.
If Glenn Beck wants to scream that the Mahdi is the Antichrist, I’d prefer to calmly tell him that I shook hands with the Army of the Antichrist than call him a nut. For those who haven’t been studying important issues like the Iraq War, one of the major political players throughout the occupation has been Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia. Translated as “Army of the Mahdi,”4 al-Sadr’s Jayish al Mahdi was the primary enemy of the infantry company that I deployed with to Baghdad from February 2007 to April 2008.
Despite the macho rhetoric of declarations like “we will not negotiate with terror,” my company signed cease fires and made deals with the very militia that killed our comrades. A Madhi Army member who led a bomb cell was arrested and destined for prison until we discovered that he was a leader in our district, so we released him and negotiated with him instead. More recently for al-Sadr himself, Reuter’s reports:
“A somewhat diminished maverick whose Mehdi Army was once viewed by U.S. forces as the greatest threat to Iraq, Sadr’s movement is making a stab at the political mainstream. Winning 39 seats in an election last year, its support was crucial in securing a new term for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. It has seven ministries in Maliki’s government.”5
The television network that helped inspire me to fight for democracy in the Middle East has not only changed its narrative by declaring that this region can’t handle democracy in places like Egypt, its franchise player is essentially saying that the government in Iraq is run by the Army of the Antichrist.
Too much is at stake to get too bogged down in reacting to Beck on his level. What he says is weakened far more by an understanding of history than a reflexive label. The Surge in Iraq, which I deployed in, was not successful primarily because of superior firepower; following the U.S.-provoked civil war with all its casualties and displacements, a weary population, including militia groups, was willing to negotiate for stability.6 The massive cost to the Iraqi population cannot be forgotten when pointing to groups like the Mahdi Army moving from hated enemies to major pieces of the new Iraqi government as the prime explanation for The Surge’s costly “success.”
To heed Lind’s call of being proactive in shaping the national dialog, knowledge can shape the future more than fear. Consider the lead up to the Iraq War: after Saddam was a key U.S. ally, he was branded with all kinds of alarming titles. When he was deemed worthy of attack (with evidence proving increasingly shoddier) many in this country, including myself, saw him as a monster who needed taken down with little thought of what would fill his place. Ironically, the Madhi Army helped to fill that vacuum yet the concept of the Mahdi is now being used to create a new surge of fear about other Middle Eastern countries.
Now, if a Beck follower tries to explain to me that the Caliphate is underway and will soon bring with it the Antichrist, I’ll refrain from saying something insulting. Instead, I will smile and say that I personally shook hands with the Army of the Antichrist and explain that the alarmist labels can’t work both ways. If followers of the Mahdi are to be feared, then aggression may lead to increased power, as al-Sadr’s followers can affirm. Conversely, if Iraq is going to be billed as a success, then the reality of why the violence has diminished must include both the cost of war and the explanation that even the militia named after the alleged Antichrist can become allies.
With a little bit of light, the boogeyman doesn’t seem so scary. And if the boogeyman needs to be as big as an Antichrist, then it probably means there is great value in looking at events like attack on unions in WI. This is exactly the kind of event, along with the full reality of the War on Terror, that needs to be discussed as we learn who is really “on the side of the common people.”
A friend, Frank Swift, that I met on my first journey has passed along some great practical steps towards peace for the new year.
Frank has written a children’s book to help young people see an alternative to the competition and forcefulness that can too easily get instilled in our young people. Check it out: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/books/product.aspx?EAN=9780982460108
Another of Frank’s ideas has a lot of insight and potential. He writes:
My younger brother, Zack, has been fascinated by the Chinese practice of Falun Gong and is hoping that this post could be used to spark a further discussion about it.
Thoughts on Falun Gong
by Zack Stieber
The following is the rough draft for an article I wrote, reflecting on the war in Iraq, that was published in the recent edition of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s magazine. For more info on getting the full magazine, check out: http://forusa.org/fall-2010-renewing-movement
Rhetoric and Reality: The Iraq War Seven Years On
by Josh Stieber
The simple days are gone where I could recall the words of a once-beloved leader and feel the inspiring chills of a noble cause. “America is a friend to the people of Iraq,” the Commander in Chief had said, stirring a mutual desire for justice and compassion. “Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us. When these demands are met, the first and greatest benefit will come to Iraqi men, women and children.”1
Freedom and Democracy would be delivered to the people of Iraq by the world’s most sophisticated fighting force as part of a larger “Global War on Terror.” It was a tune that was easy to sing along to, with 79% of U.S. citizens polled in May of 2003 saying that the war in Iraq was justified2. Actually it was two tunes: one song was fierce and militaristic, we would “shock and awe” the forces of evil. The other was reverent and chivalrous; we would defend the defenseless and introduce a reign of freedom to some of the most oppressed people in the world.
From a distance, these songs sounded sweet and poetic; up close, sour and tragic. On Independence Day of 2007, I sat in a guard tower at the old factory that served as my infantry company’s outpost in the outskirts of Baghdad. Patriotic sentiments had been replaced with a guilty feeling of hypocrisy. The Freedom and Democracy that I was supposedly exporting theoretically thrived on the will of the people.
The will of the people in our district however, had been forcefully shoved aside about a month before. Men, women, and children had poured into the streets outside of the building we planned to turn into our outpost. Banners proclaiming “USA Go Home!” and a chorus of angry shouts proclaimed the will of the people. When our rhetoric wasn’t convenient to our goals, it was dismissed, as were the crowds of people chanting for us to leave.
As announcements come that combat troops have gone home, the mission has changed, and the rest of the U.S. forces will come home next summer, the battle for rhetoric versus reality will undoubtedly surge. This surge has been mounting and the rhetoric and fanfare of changing the mission’s name seem to have taken the upper hand over the reality of what the increase in private contractors and the continuance of tens of thousands of troops means to the Iraqi people.
Various forces are fighting for the legacy of how the Iraq War will be understood. A video that made international headlines, influencing how millions of people around the world will remember the war, was filmed within walking distance of the building that we had overtaken, despite a massive protest from the local population.
The infamous “Collateral Murder” video highlights the contradiction of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This grisly, black and white camera footage shows a helicopter mowing down a group of men, some armed, most not, then blasting a van full of people, some children, that had pulled up to help the wounded. In theory, eliminating insurgents to liberate defenseless civilians sounded noble; shown in video, it looks anything but clear-cut and heroic. Not only were two Reuters journalists killed and two children wounded, but voices of soldiers are heard on the radio making fun of the death and destruction. This real footage which shocked and outraged so many, as terrible as it was, was far from the worst of what I saw transpire in Iraq.
And this is why the legacy of what really did, and continues to transpire in Iraq is of such importance: because saying and seeing—rhetoric and reality—are two enormously different vantages. It’s one thing to genuinely keep a straight face and salute a campaign so unabashedly named as “Shock and Awe” while believing it will rescue an oppressed people. It’s quite another thing to witness actual footage, beyond the slogans and chants, and not imagine that such instances would be nearly impossible to interpret as acts of good will.
Part of the dangerous brilliance on the advertising of this war was to package it in humanitarian terms. But the young people who carried it out—some with this idealism, some for other reasons—were put through training that dehumanized us to the point where the phrase “winning the hearts and minds of the people” became the punch line of calloused jokes, not the rallying cry of a humanitarian effort. As a result, those of us who bought the idealistic packaging ended up seeing and doing awful, sometimes barbaric things to the very people we hoped to save through superior firepower and higher virtue. While our political and military leaders speak of a commitment to the Iraqi people, the commitment that many of these people will know is a decade of sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of people and explained as “worth it” 3; at times, indiscriminant bombings; killed, abused, and tortured family members dismissed as “unfortunate” or “tragic, but necessary”; of Depleted Uranium’s effects carrying war’s sickness to the next generation; of the few profiting, while the many suffer.
The horrors that we created in the lives of the Iraqi people came home and haunted our own minds and lives as well. When the rhetoric that we were serving our country and should be proud of our accomplishments failed to drive nightmares away, many times the rhetoric simply got repeated instead of examining reality. A good friend of mine was denied psychological treatment when we returned home; another was told he’d be punished if he went to talk to a psychologist; three other people I knew found themselves in mental institutions at one time or another after returning from combat. This only begins to describe the countless cases of wars effects, at home and abroad, recognized and ignored.
The rhetoric that “we” were good and “they” were evil collapsed into a mire of trying to justify to ourselves that at least we were the lesser of two evils. Can you put those into statistics? Are we justified because the numbers of lives our armed forces ruined were smaller than the numbers that can be attributed to Saddam Hussein’s armed forces?
To somebody who once looked at my nation as a bastion of virtue and who now hopes, despite so many horrors, in the power of common humanity, the answer is a resounding no. Freedom and Democracy cannot be forced on a people against their will; we betray the ideals in this nation’s bloody war for political and economic independence if that myth is perpetuated by the legacy of this war. Even after military forces go home, the intrusive hand of U.S. foreign policy will obstruct these democratic values from finding genuine ownership in the citizens of Iraq. The hub of information known as the Green Zone might as well have been a different country to the citizens that I lived amongst for fourteen months; in all that time, I never heard national politics talked about without sarcasm from the locals.
But beyond nationalism, if success is defined as killing or displacing a few less people, being not quite as cruel when we torture, or whatever other dark spots we hope to gloss over, then that darkness will only spread. History’s writers, no doubt, will decorate this war’s legacy with the same rhetoric that began it in the first place.
For those of us who know the reality beyond the rhetoric—whether we had to learn this lesson the hard way or whether we caught on much quicker—the challenge is as great as ever. Calls to fix the world through surges of violence will continue to beckon that liberation or safety or revenge or whatever the goal may be, is only a series of bombs and bullets and drones away. To live differently, rather than to talk differently; to let a heartfelt compassion lead us to build friendships and break stereotypes instead of building weapons and breaking skulls, that is a mission worthy of trying to accomplish. That can mean that we will seek reconciliation with those we’ve hurt; many are already doing so and it’s a long process that myself and other veterans have taken beginning steps in with a letter of reconciliation and responsibility (www.lettertoiraq.com); it also means building friendships in other countries at war, or threatened by war as we’ve done with The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (http://ourjourneytosmile.com). The legacy of the Iraq War is tragic, revolting, and brutal, with pain and betrayal continuing indefinitely. The false promises of humanity and compassion have been exposed and a humble but firm dedication to peace and reconciliation remain the tools for achieving what bombs and bullets could not accomplish.
Interview I did with a fascinating writer for SLATE whose special interest is on transformation and how people come to admit they’re wrong:
Address to article:
Thursday marked the beginning of the 10th year of war in Afghanistan. There is much to protest about U.S. action there–some performed a die-in to highlight the use of drones (http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/asia/200657/us-drone-kills-7-militants-in-nw-pakistan)–and a group of veterans of The Global War on Terror used the day to launch a campaign that could bring meaningful change to actions in Afghanistan.
Together with a dozen or so other veterans, I arrived at Walter Reed hospital to launch a campaign to pressure political and military decision makers to halt the deployment of traumatized troops. A brief press conference was held out front of the hospital housing many whom the war has damaged physically, several members of our crew went inside to visit with the injured, and the rest of us began a march to focus on those damaged psychologically.
When I returned from a fourteen month deployment from Iraq in 2008, I applied as a conscientious objector and part of the process was to have a psychologist see if I was crazy so that I could be removed from the military for reasons other than moral conviction. The wait for the required fifteen minute meeting with the psychologist was three weeks! I could wait, but many of my comrades were having a much harder time calming the ghosts of war and this kind of wait time can seem like ages to a haunted mind. Several friends of mind were denied care or told to come back in six weeks and in the absence of professional help, self medicated with alcohol, sleeping pills, aerosol sprays, and drugs–prescription and non.
Some soldiers with psychological disorders did not even attempt to seek help. A newspaper article about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was taped on the wall of our offices and the word “PUSSY” written across it sent a clear message as to how soldiers seeking help were seen.
For the diagnosed and those too intimidated to, we marched with simple black and white signs stating “Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops.” For the 20% to 50% of those suffering with PTSD, some faced with redeployment, we marched. For the 20% of women reporting Military Sexual Trauma we marched. For the 33% of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who say they cannot see a mental health professional when they need to, we marched. (Facts at: http://www.ivaw.org/sites/default/files/documents/public/Fact_Sheet.pdf)
But the implications are greater too. When troops with psychological disorders are redeployed, given weapons and authority, and turned loose into a civilian population overseas, the results can not only be tragic, but also completely counterintuitive to the supposed reasons why the troops are there to begin with. The recently publicized Afgan “Kill Team” of soldiers who murdered for sport was reportedly spearheaded by a leader who carried over his practices from his Iraq deployment to Afghanistan; added to the long list of atrocities carried out in both countries and it doesn’t take much imagination to see why most people in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t perceive us as liberators and nation builders. If ever there was a recipe for infuriating a population, torturing it’s members and killing for sport seems like a surefire plan.
These thoughts swirled in our minds as we trekked six miles from Walter Reed to the Capitol. Mounting the steps of the a Senate office building, several veterans shared their stories as another press conference. Before we could end however, the Capitol Hill Police repeatedly warned us to leave; the conference was nearly concluded when the paddy wagon rolled up in a telling scene of our government’s priorities, we were removed to a nearby park.
But we would not be silenced. Regrouping, we marched into the halls of the senate offices. Our determined group went to each office of Senators on the Armed Services Committee, asking for legislative support, information on who determines deployment orders, and a congressional hearing.
Rushing over to Russia Today, we continued to get the word out that the longest war in U.S. history is damaging those who fight them and the civilian populations in the U.S., in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. In nine years, haven’t we learned that terror cannot eliminate terror?
by Josh Stieber
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