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Building Peace in a Time of Perpetual War
Published on Monday, December 13, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Building Peace in a Time of Perpetual War
by Medea Benjamin
 

Immediately after George Bush declared victory on November 2, 2004, his administration gave the green light for an all-out attack on the Iraqi rebel town of Fallujah. The town was virtually leveled, hundreds of civilians were killed, and over 150,000 became desperate refugees suffering from hunger, cold and disease. And all this after Bush supposedly won the election because of his strong moral values!

During the first debate between George Bush and John Kerry, Bush made a pointed comment about moral values. "What distinguishes us from the terrorists," he said somberly, "is that we believe that every life is precious." But according to an October 2004 report in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has cost the lives of over 100,000 Iraqis, mostly women and children.

While the Bush administration rarely acknowledges the death toll among U.S. soldiers, it flatly refuses to talk about Iraqi casualties. When asked about Iraqi deaths, then U.S. Central Command chief General Tommy Franks responded tersely, "We don't do body counts."

The Iraqi government also suppresses casualty figures. Dr. Nagham Mohsen, an official at the Iraqi Health Ministry, was ordered in December 2003 to stop compiling data from hospital records, and journalists were prohibited from entering the morgues.

The Lancet study, which is the first scientific study of the human cost of the Iraq war, was done by US and Iraqi researchers led by School of Public Health in Baltimore. The team surveyed 1,000 households in 33 randomly chosen areas in Iraq. They found that the risk of violent death was 58 times higher in the period since the invasion, and that most of the victims were women and children. While their final horrifying calculation of over 100,000 civilian deaths made front-page news in many parts of the world, the U.S. press barely mentioned it.

A United Nations report released in November 2004 found that severe malnutrition in Iraqi children had almost doubled since the U.S. invasion. This translates to roughly 400,000 Iraqi children suffering from "wasting," a condition characterized by chronic diarrhea and dangerous deficiencies of protein. Iraq's child malnutrition rate now roughly equals that of Burundi, a central African nation torn by more than a decade of war. It is far higher than child malnutrition rates in Uganda and Haiti. And this in a country where, just a generation ago, the biggest nutritional problem for young Iraqis was obesity!

While Iraqis have certainly suffered the most from this war, the cost in lives of U.S. soldiers continues to mount, nearing 1,500 by the end of 2004. Another 10,000 US soldiers have been wounded in action, and thousands more killed in accidents. With attacks on US soldiers now reaching 100 a day, more and more families will be getting that tragic "We regret to inform you…" visit.

For those who fear that a removal of U.S. forces would result in chaos and civil war, what is Iraq today but a country plagued by chaos and violence? If the U.S. occupying forces that gave rise to the insurgency were to leave, the insurgency would lose its purpose. Certainly there is the risk of internal power struggles, but as many Iraqis have told us, the destruction by Iraqis fighting each other would pale in comparison with the destruction by the U.S. forces, as evidenced in the recent attack on Fallujah. Moreover, the withdrawal of U.S. troops would open up the possibility for the entry of UN or other peacekeeping forces.

The presence of U.S. forces also sets back efforts at reconstruction, since those who work with the U.S. forces are putting their lives at risk and often quit because of intimidation by insurgents. Buildings bombed in the initial invasion of Iraq have yet to be rebuilt, electricity is still intermittent, and oil production is plagued by sabotage. The lack of basic services and employment opportunities in turn leads to more animosity against the U.S. presence.

There are many good reasons to oppose the occupation of Iraq, from the mounting casualties to the bankrupting of our economy to the increased anti-American feelings it has engendered. But there is one really compelling reason to call for the withdrawal of our troops: the Iraqis want us to leave.

A survey of Iraqis sponsored by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in May 2004 showed that most Iraqis say they would feel safer if U.S. forces left immediately. An overwhelming majority of 80 percent also said they have "no confidence" in either the U.S. civilian authorities or military forces. If we really believe in democracy, then we should listen to the desire of the majority of the Iraqi people.

Our demands as a peace movement should be for the U.S. government to make a commitment to withdraw our troops by the end of 2005 at the latest; pledge that we will not maintain permanent bases in Iraq; and commit to ending the war profiteering by U.S. companies so that Iraqis have the opportunity to rebuild their own country.

So how do we build a peace movement that can put forward these demands in an effective way? Here are some practical things we can do.

1.Make real the human cost of the war on both U.S. and Iraqi lives. Since the US invasion in March 2003, the public in most countries throughout the world has seen the horrible pictures of Iraq war victims. The big exception is the US public, which has seen a sanitized version of the war. CNN International regularly shows footage of war victims in its worldwide broadcasts but not on domestic CNN. The world community demands to know the truth, and we should too. Write letters, call and email your local media demanding that they cover the victims of war. If they fail to respond, organize a community delegation to visit them. If they fail to respond to that as well, organize protests at their offices.

Invite an Iraqi-American to come speak to your community about the effects of the occupation. Contact Global Exchange Speakers Bureau for a list of Iraqi and American speakers on the war (www.globalexchange.org).

Regarding the cost of war for US soldiers, ask your local media to read or print a daily casualty toll. Do screenings in your school, church or houseparty of videos about US casualties. Two forceful videos are Arlington West (www.arlingtonwestfilm.com) and The Ground Truth (www.thegroundtruth.org).

If the public were able to see, on a sustained basis, the gory reality of this war-the children without limbs, the wailing mothers, the shivering refugees, the US soldiers coming home in body bags or incapacitated for life---support would plummet and the war would end.

2.Support military families who are speaking out against the war, and soldiers who are speaking out and refusing to fight. Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org) is a group of over 1,000 families with loved ones in the military. Help get their voices out on the media or invite one of them to speak in your community. Some of them are parents of fallen soldiers, such as Fernando Suarez or Lila Lipscomb of Fahrenheit 911 fame, and their testimonies are heart-wrenching and compelling.

In the case of Vietnam, dissent within the armed forces itself was critical in ending the war. There is now a new group of soldiers called Iraq Veterans Against the War (www.ivaw.org) that deserves our support. So do the soldiers who are refusing to serve. Over one-third of some 4,000 combat veterans have resisted their call-ups. One of the most public soldiers who refused to return to fight in Iraq is Camilo Mejia (see www.freecamilo.org), who is serving a one-year prison sentence after being convicted of desertion. "I witnessed the horror of war," said Camilo at his trial, "the firefights, the ambushes, the excessive use of force, the abuse of prisoners. Acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military. By putting my weapon down I chose to reassert myself as a human being."

We also need to support counter-recruitment efforts, efforts that provide young people-particularly in poor communities-with a truthful picture of the risks of joining the military and of their other options for employment and education. See www.objector.org for a list of groups doing counter-recruitment, general support for soldiers (including a GI Rights Hotline), and advice for those who want to apply for conscientious objector status.

3. Pressure Congress to stop further funding, investigate war profiteering and cut Halliburton and other contractors from the government dole. A December 8, 2004 Associated Press poll found that the majority of Americans don't believe there will be stable, democratic government in Iraq and disapprove of George Bush's handling of the situation. More and more Americans are recognizing that this war is unwinnable and don't want to see billions more of our tax dollars wasted. We must now convince our Congressional representatives. In February, the Bush administration is expected to request an additional $70 billion for the military. This massive request includes money for building dozens of military bases in Iraq and the most expensive U.S. embassy in the world, as well as money for more troops. We must demand that our representatives oppose funding that further entrenches the U.S. presence in Iraq.

We must also call on Congress to stop government agencies from giving contracts to U.S. companies for "rebuilding" Iraq. Iraqis have some of the best engineers and builders in the world, and are totally capable of rebuilding their own country. The U.S. contractors in Iraq are plagued by incompetence, waste, corruption, cronyism and lack of accountability. They also take jobs away from Iraqis, contributing to the catastrophic unemployment rate of about 70% and the increasing Iraqi bitterness against Americans. We must demand that Congress stop giving new contacts to U.S. companies and that it investigate more fully the charges of war profiteering against companies that have been awarded high-dollar contracts, particularly Halliburton. In fact, there is an on-going FBI probe of Halliburton for war profiteering. We should demand that Congress stop all monies to Halliburton while charges are pending and if found guilty, ban Halliburton from receiving any future government contracts.

We should also demand a freeze on contracts to companies whose employees are accused of being involved in human rights abuses, such as CACI and Titan in the case of the Abu Ghraib prison.

4. Strengthen local peace work and bring the cost of the war home. The anti-war coalition must reach out to broader sectors of the community, especially religious groups, labor, communities of color and students. We must make clear the connections between the $200 billion squandered on Iraq and the cuts that communities across the US are facing in health care, education and vital social services. The amazing website www.nationalpriorities.org will give you an estimate of the cost of the war for your city and state.

Get local churches, labor unions, student governments and city councils to pass resolutions against the occupation. Hundreds of such resolutions were passed before the war began; we need to revive that energy in the call to bring the troops home. In November 2004, the city of San Francisco had a "Bring the Troops Home" measure on the ballot, and it passed by an overwhelming 63 percent. Similar ballot initiatives or resolutions could be passed in cities all over the country. For the text of the resolution, see http://www.smartvoter.org/2004/11/02/ca/sf/meas/N/.

It is also time to ramp up the anti-war activism with non-violent civil disobedience. This could include sit-ins at the offices of military recruiters or congresspeople or military contractors, blockades at military bases, or "sleep-ins" at schools or libraries to demand money for books, not for war. A great model is the "sleep-in" staged by students at the Boulder High School until they secured a meeting with their congressional representative to express their concerns about a draft (see www.commondreams.org/headlines04/1105-21.htm). Another great example is when the Kensington Welfare Rights Union took over their local Army Recruiters Office calling for "Money for Housing, Not for War!" (see www.kwru.org).

Local peace coalitions should work closely with the national umbrella group United for Peace and Justice (www.unitedforpeace.org). This is the organization that put together the largest anti-war rallies, including the massive February 15, 2004 rally that took place in New York City and hundreds of cities around the country-and the world.

5. Build the global coalition February 15, 2004 was indeed an amazingly powerful day when "the world said no to war." We need to strengthen the global anti-war coalition and not just organize joint rally days, but joint campaigns. These could be campaigns against companies profiting from war, or campaigns to get countries that are still part of the "coalition forces" to withdraw (by the end of 2004, at least 15 of the original 32 members of the coalition had either left Iraq or had announced their intention to leave).

Another possibility is to set up a Global Peace Camp on the Jordanian/Iraqi border. Since it is so dangerous for foreigners to travel inside Iraq, the border is an alternative site for Iraqis and international activists to meet, educate each other, and exchanges ideas. In stark contrast to the violence inside Iraq, the Peace Camp would be a real-life symbol of how people from different countries, religions and ethnicities can come together to build the kind of world we'd like to live in. If you are interested in this idea, contact peace@globalexchange.org.

We should consider a global campaign to push the United Nations-both at the Security Council and the General Assembly-to call for a swift timeline for the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Iraq.

6. Support efforts to decrease our dependence on oil. While the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not solely about oil, it is certainly true that if broccoli were Iraqi's main export, we would not have invaded. It's also true that until we get off our dependence on oil, we will continue to have policies in the Middle East that tie us to undemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia or push us to invade countries like Iraq to control their oil.

There are plenty of ways to start breaking our oil addiction, including investing significant resources in solar and wind power (see www.appolloproject.org), promoting fuel efficient vehicles (see www.jumpstartford.org), and focusing on conservation and efficiency (see www.rmi.org).

George Bush took the 2004 election as a mandate to continue this illegal, immoral war in Iraq. It is up to us, the American people, to rebel against Bush's arrogant empire-building. It is up to us-as caring, compassionate Americans-to force the Bush administration to stop the killing, start respecting international law, and assume our rightful place as one among many in the family of nations.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the human rights group Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org) and the women's peace initiative Code Pink (www.codepinkalert.org). She has led numerous delegations to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and started the International Occupation Watch Center (www.occupationwatch.org).

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