Veterans On Cross Country Biking Pilgrimage to Protest the War in Afghanistan
Long before General Stanley McChrystal’s embarrassing interview and resignation, all reports from Afghanistan warned of impending disaster. Our partner, President Hamid Karzai, is corrupt, clueless, and illegitimate. The "Iraq-proven" counterinsurgency plan, strongly endorsed by General Petraeus, has so far been a dismal failure in Afghanistan. US Marines are still unable to control Marjah, which was supposed to be the simple dress rehearsal for the attack on the Taliban stronghold, Kandahar. Reports of killed soldiers, and killed civilians, have become commonplace. Lost in all the fuss over McChrystal’s disrespect for the civilian leadership was his and his staff’s candid assessment that the war was essentially unwinnable. Despite all of these warnings, US policy remains unchanged. General Casey recently predicted that the US presence in Afghanistan would last a decade, or two.
None of this comes as a surprise to Jacob George, a US Army Sergeant who served three tours in Operation Enduring Freedom with the Army Special Operations Command. Jacob, 28, was in Afghanistan since the war began until 2004, helping run counterinsurgency operations. He could tell you a thousand stories. After years of quiet reflection, he felt compelled to break his silence and clear his conscience, not just to friends and family, but to the entire nation. Last April, Jacob dropped out of the University of Arkansas, quit his job with the University Parking Enforcement Office, and began biking around the country until the wars end. This began the first direct action protest of the Afghanistan war by an Afghanistan war veteran. That was May 1st. Jacob has been on the road ever since and shows no sign of letting up.
Jacob has not ridden alone, nor is he the only veteran. He was accompanied to Houston by his brother, Jordan George, 19, of the Arkansas National Guard. Jordan is AWOL and is refusing deployment to Afghanistan. Spencer Hindmarsh, 28, a US Air Force veteran from the Afghan war and a law student at the University of Arkansas, has now joined the ride. Several individuals have provided solidarity accompaniment, and others are encouraged to join. Jacob and Spencer attended the Iraq Veterans Against the War conference in Austin last weekend, and will be in town for the coming weeks reaching out to members of the activist community before continuing their ride.
A Ride Till the End aims to raise awareness about the disastrous effects of the war on veterans, Afghani civilians, and US citizens. They believe that the real costs of war for these groups have been purposefully rendered invisible. They see the war in Afghanistan as unnecessary, unwinnable and senseless, and a death sentence for thousands of US soldiers and for tens of thousands of Afghani civilians who are caught in the crossfire. They believe that the Taliban poses no threat to the US, provided that the US leaves Afghanistan. Jacob regrets that the US occupation has turned the oppressive Taliban into legitimate freedom fighters for many Afghanis. They also think that the war makes US citizens vulnerable to domestic terrorism against which there is no real defense. As basic as these ideas might seem to those following the war, it takes a great deal of courage and resolve to dedicate your life to challenging society to act to end what we know is wrong.
A Ride Till the End is one part performance art, one part bike rally, and one part concert tour. Jacob plays banjo, and has written a book of poetry and several songs to spread his message. He says that this is the first time since joining the Army that he felt like he had a voice. The immediate goal is to animate an almost non-existent anti-war movement in the US. Their larger goal is to provoke a more profound cultural shift. They believe that war—at least the imperial wars for oil and influence we are currently fighting—is deeply wrong. Jacob sees warmongering as a criminal act. Their voice is small, but sincere, their methods humble, but effective.
The ride was inspired by the Ride to the Wall—a Vietnam veterans’ annual motorcycle ride to the Vietnam Memorial in DC. Although Jacob loves biking, the ride is a ritual sacrifice, a kind of pilgrimage. Riding day in and day out takes a physical toll. Since May, Jacob has dropped 20 pounds from his 5’4’’ frame, and his face and tattooed back and arms are as tan as leather. The riders live meagerly, sleeping in tents and subsisting off of the kindness of people they meet serendipitously along their route.
The riders need donations of money, food and lodging. But they are mostly interested in finding people willing to listen to their stories and to join them in the struggle for peace. Almost every day they encounter people, including soldiers, veterans and families members of veterans, who thank them for their efforts.
Unlike most pilgrimages, this one ends at a moral, not a geographical, destination. Some people, maybe even most, might think this is crazy. Pessimists might see this as a bike ride for forever, and for nothing. But to that, the riders respond: "If you think that riding bikes is unsustainable, what about perpetual warfare?" By taking a stand, a Ride Till the End highlights the sheer insanity and cruelty of world that we take for granted, and embodies the courage needed to create a culture of peace.