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After 9 Years in Iraq: Reflections on Peace, Nonviolence, and Reconciliation

Ross Caputi

Anniversaries, whether celebrated or mourned, are opportunities for reflection. As we reach the 9th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, what should we reflect on? What questions should we ask ourselves? As members of the peace movement, perhaps we should reflect on peace. “Peace” is a vague word full of emotional content that means many different things to many different people. But even in the word’s broadest possible sense, peace has not been achieved in Iraq. Not in its negative sense, which is simply the absence of violence, nor in its positive sense, which is the presence of factors that sustain peace, can we use the word “peace” to describe Iraq.(1) Such reflections suggest that we, the peace movement, have not succeeded in our objectives (but not for a lack of good intentions and hard work). Nevertheless this should motivate us to ask further questions. Where do we go from here? What should we do differently?

Building on this notion of a “positive peace”, De Rivera (2004) has posited 8 bases for a “culture of peace”:

1) Education (and especially, education for the peaceful resolution of conflict)
2) Sustainable development (viewed as involving the eradication of poverty, reduction of inequalities, and environmental sustainability)
3) Human rights
4) Gender equality
5) Democratic participation
6) Understanding, tolerance, and solidarity (among peoples, vulnerable groups, and migrants within the nation and among nations)
7) Participatory communication and the free flow of information
8) International peace and security (including disarmament and various positive initiatives)(2)

Iraq has none of these bases, and day to day violence in Iraq is still high. What are we, the peace movement, to do? When American troops were stationed all over Iraq, our purpose was straightforward: Bring the troops home. But now that the majority of the American public believes that we have fully withdrawn from Iraq, its focus has shifted to Afghanistan, and the peace movement’s focus in Iraq seems to be shifting towards reconciliation and civil society projects. But with several thousand troops and mercenaries still in Iraq, is reconciliation possible? desirable? Should foreigners have any role in building Iraq’s culture of peace? For the rest of this article I’ll argue no to all of the above.

Reconciliation projects, at first glance, might seem like the next logical step for the peace movement in Iraq, and many NGOs and nonprofits are already operating in Iraq to promote peace, reconciliation, and nonviolence. However, reconciliation is another vague word, and we should consider what it means to reconcile relations between Iraqis and Americans while our country is still playing such an active role in oppressing theirs. It turns out that many of these NGOs and nonprofits are not far removed from the U.S. State Department or the Iraqi government, neither of which should the peace movement consider to be an ally. Many well intentioned activists are deceived by these organizations’ use of the words “peace,” “reconciliation,” and “nonviolence”, and they support these organizations without realizing the consequences of doing so.

The Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative is one such organization. The ICSSI states that it is dedicated to nonviolence and “building concrete links of solidarity between international civil society organizations and the growing Iraqi civil society.” At first glance this all sounds fine, but before we throw our support behind a group like the ICSSI we should consider the implications of such a decision. First of all, many Iraqis believe that armed struggle is the only realistic way to free Iraq. Although many of us in the peace movement describe ourselves as pacifists, it would be a mistake to only support Iraqis who share our values. Such a decision would make our recognition of their human rights contingent on their choosing what we deem to be the “right” way to resist, and this would carry the condescension of the educated Westerner deciding when the backwards third-worlder is “worthy” of our support.[3] Let us remember that “peace” is not antithetical to all forms of violence. Sometimes selfdefense is justified. And to ask Iraqis to be pacifists like us while our military is brutally attacking them is like a rapist asking their victim to take the moral high ground and not fight back.

Furthermore the ICSSI’s key members have connections to the U.S. State Department, USAID, the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform. This is a group that does not represent the will of the majority in Iraq. It represents the interests of specific political and ideological groups in Iraq. If we throw our support behind them, we throw our support behind those groups as well, and we exclude Iraqis with differing ideologies.

Another such initiative is A Dialogue for Peace, which describes itself as “a grassroots peace tour designed to create an ongoing dialogue between American and Iraqi university students.” Again, at first look this project sounds wonderful, but when you look at where the money is coming from things get murky. A Dialogue for Peace is a Clinton Global Initiative University project. Bill Clinton . . . the sanctions guy. The leadership at the Clinton Global Initiative are none other than ex-Wall Street employees, Bill Clinton himself, and a former member of his administration.

And then there is the Preemptive Love Coalition, which touts the slogan “Reconciliation Through Healing” and gives life-saving heart surgeries to Iraqi children. The Preemptive Love Coalition has done some excellent work in providing much needed health care to Iraqis, especially people from the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which has been plagued with congenital heart malformations since 2004. But again there is more here than what meets the eye. The Preemptive Love Coalition has been unapologetic about its collaboration with the Iraqi government, the same government that sanctioned the 2nd siege of Fallujah (the siege thought to be responsible for the dramatic rise in birth defects in Fallujah) and has gone out of its way to prevent research into the cause of these birth defects.

There are many other NGOs, nonprofits, and reconciliation projects similar in character to the ones I’ve listed. They are not completely sinister, and are likely led by well-meaning people. How bad can life-saving heart surgeries really be? However, behind the language of peace, nonviolence, and reconciliation are hidden agendas. These projects do not represent the will of the majority in Iraq, but instead represent the interests of certain political groups within Iraq and corporate interests here at home. As Americans, we should be leery of backing any specific political agenda in Iraq and dividing the country further.

So then, what does reconciliation mean? Do we simply want the violence between Iraqis and Americans to stop? Or do we want something more like equality, respect, or forgiveness? The U.S. has destroyed many of Iraq’s institutions—its education system, its once top-rate health care system, its system of agriculture—and the occupation has put a corrupt and oppressive regime in power in Iraq. What would it mean for the violence simply to stop and these injustices to stay in place? What type of relationship could Iraqis and Americans possibly have? Pushing for reconciliation while such injustices still exist in Iraq will only serve to normalize them. Like all relationships, the American relationship with Iraq will only ever be truly reconciled in a meaningful way, when Americans and Iraqis are equal—rather than one dominating the other. The path forward to reconciliation is through a common struggle for justice and human rights.

Our role is not to rebuild Iraq’s institutions in the image of our own, or to back only the groups that resist in the way that we like them to. Only Iraqis can build their culture of peace, and they are quite capable of doing that without the help of Americans. All we can do to help them is to stop our government’s role in the violence in their country. Peace in its negative sense is not desirable as long as injustice exists in Iraq. Reconciliation, and Peace in its positive sense, will only be possible when there is justice. Let us keep fighting for justice, and reconciliation will come organically.

[1] Galtung, Johan (1985). Twenty-Five Years of Peace Research: Ten Challenges and Some Responses. Journal of Peace Research, 22, 141-158.
[2] De Rivera, Joseph (2004). Assessing a Basis for a Culture of Peace in Contemporary Societies. Journal of Peace Research, 41, 531-548.
[3] Shikaki, Ibrahim. (2011, July) What is the ‘right’ type of resistance? Al Jazeera,

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Ross Caputi

Ross Caputi, 29, is a US veteran of the occupation of Iraq. He took part in the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004. That experience led him to become an anti-war activist. Today he is on the Board of Directors of ISLAH and he directed and produced the documentary film Fear Not the Path of Truth.

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