'For You, a Thousand Times Over': On Facing the Crimes of Our Wars
At the start of The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini later adapted for film, a brave and selflessly loyal Afghan boy runs to help his much wealthier friend, singing out his love for him "For you, a thousand times over...". They have been flying a fighting kite, (these are kites with edges sharp enough to cut the strings of another kite), and the singing boy has gone to fetch an enemy kite they have won. A dreadful betrayal ensues, its effects exacerbated horribly by the start of the U.S.-Soviet proxy war. Several decades pass before any small sort of atonement can be achieved by the book's protagonist.
We sang that song this weekend. I was privileged to attend several actions organized by Kansas and Missouri activists, beginning at Fort Leavenworth prison, to which Bradley Manning will likely return after his current ordeal in a New Jersey military courtroom.
Manning faces a life sentence and potentially a death sentence for the crime of informing U.S. voters and people around the world how our troops and our client governments behave when we are not meant to be looking. One partial consequence seems to have been the democracy uprising of the Arab Spring. Later, at Whiteman Air Force Base, we presented an indictment for the international war crimes that are implicit in remote-controlled killing using the kind of aerial drones that are piloted from the base. As three of our friends walked forwards with the indictment to be arrested by riot-shielded base police, we flew kites to remind ourselves that the blue sky above our heads should not be a source of fear, and we sang, "For you, a thousand times over, for you, a thousand times over..."
Quite a day. I awoke to a clock radio announcing that deadly tornadoes had again ravaged the plains of the Midwest. Before I could think of the people I knew in their path, the next news item announced Taliban attacks in several locations of Kabul. It was a relief, a few minutes after logging in to my account, to receive a reassuring message from the Afghan Peace Volunteers, in whose apartment in Kabul I’ve several times had the privilege to stay. There were 12 of them together in the house in Kabul, and they were all okay. When I phoned them, my young friend Abdulai answered and told me, in English, "Kathy, there is war in Kabul today. Many bombs!" They had been staying in a rear storage room as far from the street as they could, they had adequate food and no need (and no intention) to go outside, and Bamiyan, the town many of them call home, had had phone service during the morning so they could reassure their families of their safety.
In Kabul, they’re safe from the drone attacks, which shatter so many families, suspected of any contact with the Taliban, and from the worst excesses of the small-scale local warlords we’ve armed against them. But no-one is safe in a country ravaged by four continuous decades of war making.
On Monday, we were at Whiteman AFB, singing our kite runner song to pace ourselves and remain calm in the face of a line of advancing soldiers, I imagine all Air Force cadets, which had swallowed the forms of our three brave friends (Brian Terrell, Mark Kenney, and Ron Faust) and was backing us toward a border around the base into which we had crossed. We had crossed into the base flying kites and bio-degradable balloons all bearing our message calling for an end to drone warfare, to indiscriminate death from above flown like toys, video-game style, through grainy cameras from the safety of bases like this.
We’d prepared a litany of sorts announcing our intention to release ourselves from domination by war and the U.S. war machine, and reading the names of children killed by our country’s war in Afghanistan. The Air Force security, decked out in camouflage-pattern riot gear with shields, helmets, batons, and of course guns, chanted one-two-three-four as they marched deliberately forward, intending of course, to seem as menacing as possible. From a distance they did, but when they were close enough that we could see their faces, through the riot shields... young, dutiful, far from fearsome... what to say?
Some two dozen of us had planned to head back off the base when officially warned, and as this seemed quite official, we were now backing deliberately, slowly away. I had the microphone, and assured them we meant no harm. They were chanting one-two-three-four so I told them I wished I had their discipline, I had been trying to learn Dari and had only learned the numbers up to ten, but I counted with them: yek, do, seh, chahar, and it quickly became clear that, between songs and assurances, there was nothing, simply nothing, for anyone present to fear in this particular face-off, except for the men facing imprisonment for declining to retreat with us.
Looking through the clear plastic of the shields into these young soldiers’ faces, I couldn’t fail to think of Bradley Manning, outside whose prison (though he has been, and will likely be, in many prisons) we had stood vigil the previous day. Such an act of unbearable, unbelievable courage, repaid so terrifyingly by my government – by the greatest military power my world has ever, and may, perhaps, ever come to know. For how much of his life, over the past few years, for how many hours has he even seen the sky? Not discounting the discipline of these young men before me, could I think of a greater hero, making at such great risk such sensible and visionary choices, as Bradley Manning? I wondered how many decades of suffering lay before him, not merely because of his near-unfathomable courage, but because he was so alone in his courage. None of us have faced what he is facing, and if more of us had, would his sacrifice have even been needed?
There were other actions this weekend - many people came together in Kansas City, MO, for a well-organized session of community building and planning. Lu Mountenay, Mark Kenney, Henry Stoever, and Midge Potts were arrested for crossing the line at a Kansas City factory that manufactures "non-nuclear parts for nuclear weapons" and is the size of 13 football fields. The momentum here ensures that there are more actions to come. We all felt very proud of and moved by the people who committed civil resistance, and we were grateful for all the many people who helped the weekend activity happen. Honestly too numerous to name.
But I’m brought back to that story I read, in which the young boy, so full of service and love, runs off into danger, facing it honorably and with passionate courage, singing “For you, a thousand times over.” I think of my brave friends organizing for peace and sectarian healing in blast-ravaged Kabul, and I think of Pfc. Manning, and his mad, wise, selfless act of love, and I wonder how many decades it will be, how many thousands of these vigils we will attend, before we can achieve some kind of atonement.