The Planet's Imperative: Stop War, Shine On

Common Dreams

by Susan Van Haitsma 

On Earth Day, I contemplated the pre-dawn sky, looking for shooting stars.  The evening prior, my partner and I had scouted out a viewing spot adjoining a vacant lot just a few blocks from home.  Though we live in a central neighborhood, the clear air and waning moon offered favorable viewing conditions for the Lyrid meteor shower even from our urban vantage point.

In a warm climate, the transition between night and day is a time of rejuvenation for the earth, when ground water rises into plant stems, pushing them upward.  Planted in my camp chair, gazing upward, I thought I could feel the life force, too — the magnetism of the heavens pulling gently against the gravity that held me down and drew the meteors in.

The night was balmy, and the quiet was actually filled with sound: insects humming, a mockingbird singing his brilliant medley, our neighborhood screech owl trilling his single note.   There was some street traffic: a dumpster truck, a few cars and several bicycles that glided by.  Above, two planes passed the spot we were watching during the hour we were there.

My partner and I saw 6 meteors each.  The brightest was a burst of light with no visible trail. The others made brief but unmistakable dashes between the constellations.  We welcomed each silent flash with an exclamation.  Did the mockingbird and the owl see them, too?

Staring into space makes me think about time.  I want the planet to celebrate an uncountable number of future Earth Days.  But, the darkest hour reveals the starkest truth:  the primary obstacle to the earth’s longevity is the effect of my own species on our shared home. 

In a quiet moment of reflection in the film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore asks himself, in voiceover, about the barriers that keep human beings from living more sustainably.   It would have been the perfect opportunity to discuss the most inconvenient truth: our preoccupation with security is killing us.  The drive to keep ourselves “safe” has become the greatest threat to our existence.

Many indicators point to the US Department of Defense as the largest institutional polluter in the world.  Most tellingly, the US military is the world’s largest single oil purchaser and consumer.   If the invasion of Iraq, and perhaps Afghanistan, was about US oil interests, then military occupation serves mainly to perpetuate the military, like a snake devouring its own tail, feeding and destroying itself at the same time.

War is not only ungreen, it discourages greenness.  I sometimes feel ridiculous sorting my recycling and installing low energy light bulbs while the massive pistons of the war machine keep pumping, consuming incalculable amounts of energy for every watt I try to conserve.       

On Earth Day eve, Al Gore said that we are now at a tipping point.  “This year, 2009, is the Gettysburg for the environment,” he said.  It’s interesting that he should use a war metaphor for his call to action.  The US Civil War caused untold environmental destruction along with its huge human death toll.  Both sides lose when home is a battlefield.  Now, home encompasses the globe.

We human beings can decide to abolish war.  The owl needs its prey, but we do not.  Our most basic, most elegant tools are at hand:  communication, education, international law, creative arts and sciences, nonviolent resistance.  When we are threatened, we have these tools, mightier than the sword, to protect ourselves.  In the process, we protect our descendants – and the owl, too.   

If the Obama Administration is urging us to look forward, then we must take the long view of the future.  The long view means valuing the history lesson along with the brain-storming session.  If we care what happens to our progeny ten generations from now, we’ve got to consider the trajectory from ten generations back as equally relevant.

The life of our planet must not be a flash in the pan, a brief streak of light in time’s expanse.   Our ancient Mother deserves a future of infinite history, and so do we, her youngest children.   To celebrate our common Mother’s Day, let’s give her bicycles, sustainable agriculture, windmills, solar panels, rain barrels.  Because it makes no sense to give her bicycles with one hand and bombs with the other, it’s time to acknowledge that the critical point we have reached is not a call to arms, it’s a call to lay them down. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it more directly when he told the United States that our choice was between nonviolence and non-existence.  This is our Montgomery moment, our Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  The planet can’t wait, and neither must we. 


Memo to MSM: If you want nonviolence, report it

By Susan Van Haitsma


An editorial published recently by the Austin American-Statesman  admonished readers to view a trial in Minnesota as a “cautionary tale for activists.”  Two men from Austin were charged with making explosives intended for use during the Republican National Convention last September.


Cautionary tales are important, and it’s fortunate that the explosives were never used.  I wholeheartedly agree with the editorial that using violence to effect change is counterproductive.  But this story, focusing only on these two “activists” (and, later, their former colleague-turned FBI informant) has given a false impression of what activism actually looked like at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.


The case of the men from Austin was the only front-page news (Sept. 9, 10, 11, 25 and Jan. 9, 27, 28, 31) published in the Austin American-Statesman about any aspect of the demonstrations at either convention.  The larger, unreported story was that an array of creative, nonviolent action was organized in Denver and St. Paul by committed people who had gathered there to exercise their First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully despite the restrictions placed on them.  People whose message was essentially, “it’s counterproductive to use violence (invasion, occupation, torture, war) to effect change” were muffled by the police and the press.


I followed news about the demonstrations at both conventions mostly through independent media reports and eye-witness accounts from friends who were there.  Events included parades, marches, permitted encampments, art displays, concerts, street theatre and public forums.  In Denver, a group of hundreds of young people led by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War marched peacefully for several miles to deliver a statement to Obama campaign officials at the convention site.  In St. Paul, a similar march was led by several hundred members of Veterans for Peace who had held their annual convention in St. Paul in order to coincide with the RNC.  A group formed by Voices for Creative Nonviolence walked 450 miles from Chicago to St. Paul during the month ahead of the convention to speak in towns along the way about the ongoing occupation of Iraq.  CodePink activists rode bicycles around the heavily barricaded convention sites to promote a “War is Not Green” message, and they used some spontaneous satire to dramatize corporate influence of politicians and to resist the provocative corralling of demonstrators by cordons of black-clad riot police and national guard troops.


If newspaper editors are serious about wanting young people to choose nonviolence, then they must do more than pounce on stories about young people who use violence.  They must report on the alternative.  Otherwise, part of the message young people get is that only violence warrants notice.  Jurors have debated the influence of the FBI informant in the RNC case.  Another discussion could reasonably ask whether the major media plays a role in “inducing” people to use violence by selling it so heavily in the news while downplaying or ignoring news about people who practice nonviolent resistance.


Martin Luther King, Jr. was rightly cited in the American-Statesman editorial as a powerful practitioner of nonviolence.  His resistance was active, not “passive,” as the editorial termed it.


At Austin’s MLK Day celebration, and also in our public high schools this year, the Nonmilitary Options for Youth group that I work with has used a “peace wheel of fortune” that we made as a peace education tool.  The wheel contains names and pictures of peacemakers past and present, including prominent figures like MLK and Gandhi, and others not as familiar.  Students spin the wheel and, for a prize, are asked to tell us something about the person on the wheel where it stops.  We are encouraged when we see how much students like the wheel, so we’re also saddened when we see how little they are being taught in school about even the most well-known nonviolent movements.  If young people know only that MLK “had a dream,” but don’t know what he did to achieve it, and if they have never heard of Gandhi or Cesar Chavez, then they have little idea of what nonviolent resistance actually entails:  the boycotts, labor strikes, fasts, sit-ins, teach-ins, mass marches, court cases, good faith negotiations and the long road made of many important steps.  Tools and strategies evolve over time and adapt to different situations because nonviolence is a living history.


Don’t miss out on this history as it is being lived.   Don’t cheat kids out of it.  In this time of hopefulness and reform, I’d like to see the mainstream media commit to report more than the cautionary tales, and to tell the stories of the many creative ways that people are using nonviolent methods to defend our freedoms and bring about positive change.  Do it because it will increase fairness and accuracy in reporting, and do it because it will save lives. 







Iraq war veterans speak at UT panel

by Susan Van Haitsma,
also posted at the makingpeace blog

On the eve of Veterans Day, four veterans of the Iraq war spoke on a panel at the University of Texas to offer a reality check to the jingoism surrounding most November 11th commemorations. Organized by the student group, CAMEO (Campus Antiwar Movement to End Occupations), the event was designed to echo the Winter Soldier model where veterans of the wars/occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan speak from their own experience about what is happening there. In the months since the first Winter Soldier hearings were held by Iraq Veterans Against the War near Washington DC in March (patterned after the historic hearings by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971), IVAW members have been speaking on regional and local panels across the country, giving Americans more opportunities to hear directly from veterans in their communities.

Are Americans listening? That is the question. The virtual media blackout in the main stream press has been at least partially offset by good reporting among independent and international media, and IVAW itself has accomplished its own publicity through effective web outreach and creative nonviolent direct action. Thanks to student groups like CAMEO and other community sponsorship, veterans’ stories are being aired, and the mainstream can’t claim ignorance. Truth has a way of finding the light of day.

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The first of the four panelists to speak on Monday night was Hart Viges, one of my colleagues in the group, Nonmilitary Options for Youth. Hart has taken a strong interest in reaching out to young people who are in the position he was in when he felt the best thing he could do for his country was to take up arms on its behalf. Now, on his army shirt, he wears the Nonmilitary Options logo: a gun with its barrel twisted in a knot. “I’d rather talk to a high school kid than a politician any day,” he says, “because that politician isn’t going to join the military.”

Hart enlisted on Sept. 12, 2001 out of a deep sense of patriotic duty. He trained with the tough Army Airborne, hoping to jump into Iraq the hard way. Instead, he rolled into Iraq on the ground, conducting house raids and setting mortars for “soft targets.” He discovered that the mythical battleground was actually someone’s community. After one tour, Hart came to grips with his beliefs about war, crystallized by his experience of it, and he applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector. He was one of the lucky ones whose claim was approved, and he received an honorable discharge. Since then, Hart has been devoting much time to IVAW, Nonmilitary Options for Youth and the GI Rights Hotline as a telephone counselor. He has spoken widely in the US and abroad and was one of the veterans who testified at the Winter Soldier hearings in March. He also participates in a veterans therapy group at the VA, has taken some college courses and works full-time.

When he talks to high school students about his experience in Iraq, Hart encourages them to see not only the “ground zero effects” of war but also the larger picture, the system that perpetuates war. He talks about the tax dollars that fund it and the mindset that rationalizes it. Students listen because he has been there. “I know that my real tax dollars turn into real bullets that kill real people,” he says. “What I saw over there was a gross misdirection of resources and power.” When he shows students the pie chart showing the billions of federal tax dollars funneled into military spending – money that could easily pay all the college expenses of every college-aged person in the US – he asks them, “What would you rather have – two wars or a completely educated society?”

In some respects, Hart is continuing the mission he began when the Sept. 11th hijackingss spurred his instinct to protect his community with his life. Now, the community he wants to protect extends beyond the borders of one country and encompasses future generations. Instead of using a gun, he’s using his gifts.

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Second panelist, Bryan Hannah has been stationed at Ft. Hood, TX and is in the discharge process after applying as a conscientious objector. He spoke primarily about the role of private contractors in the “war on terror,” and the exasperation he feels about the lack of accountability in so many aspects of the war, from the Bush Administration on down. He didn’t describe his own experiences in Iraq, but an excerpt from a blog he writes gives a clue to some of his feelings during a recent training exercise at Ft. Hood:

“I remember the first time I waited in line for my M-16 in basic. I was like a little kid at Christmas time. Now, as I stand here to the side, as everyone draws their weapons for the field, I feel like I’m not here. Seeing people fight to gain position in a line to get their weapons sooner than the next guy, I listen in from my own little world, hearing the mutters of anxious, motivated privates in chorus with the broken vets, loathing the cold black maiden that has broken families and destroyed lives. The ball and chain wrapped around their souls and anchored into a mired existence. Due to my Conscientious Objector packet, I don’t have to carry a weapon and it almost feels like I successfully kicked a habit, or that I might actually separate from the Army one day and begin to heal.”

Bryan also has written for the IVAW publication, “SIT-REP.” In their Memorial Day ’08 issue, he authored an article about soldiers who die of injuries sustained in Iraq whose deaths are not counted in official tallies. He asked, “What about the other casualties of war? The amputees, paraplegics, quadriplegics, people with brain damage and hearing loss, personalities that are permanently changed for the worse, marriages ruined (divorces among officers have risen 300% and enlisted people have a 200% higher divorce rate than before 2003), and children who are messed up by separation from their parents. Is this war worth it? Is any possible success worth the cost?”

Bryan closed his remarks on the panel by saying, “We have to remember that apathy is the dying side of freedom.” That’s a quote for the ages.

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Mike Nordstrom, a US Marine, opened his portion of the panel discussion by informing his audience, “Today is the Marine Corps’ birthday: November 10, 1775.” Mike spoke about the difficulties that arise when one of “the few, the proud” is injured and faces the stigma associated with seeking treatment. Mike sustained physical and psychological injuries during his two tours in Iraq but was hesitant to check into the VA because he didn’t want to “take away resources” from vets with injuries that seemed worse than his. He also said that he felt embarrassed using the VA. It took pressure from his family and friends to finally get him in the door. Once there, he dealt with lots of paperwork and long waiting periods for appointments. Now, he meets regularly with a group of other vets at the VA and openly discusses the PTSD that he said is considered a “weakness issue” in the Marines.

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Final panelist, Ronn Cantu, discussed in some detail the job he held during his last tour in Iraq as part of a human intelligence team. He feels he can finally speak openly about what he did in Iraq because he has just been discharged this month from the US Army. Ronn described the process he and others in his intelligence unit were ordered to use to “make a citizen into a detainee.” The process involved capitalizing on Iraqi grudges and loyalties and their desperate need for employment and cash. He spoke about the “dual sourced” intelligence they were supposed to gather to incriminate Iraqi men of military age (documenting two information sources for every suspect). “What makes an Iraqi want to turn in another Iraqi? Money and a lot of lying,” he said. Orders would come down to “speed things up,” meaning that higher-ups wanted more detainees, so they “cast the net” wider. He said that the more they had to speed it up, the less often they found the right people. So that numbers could increase, men of military age were rounded up and detained without cause. Ronn also said that he saw evidence of detained men having been beaten, but when he asked about it, he was told that if he didn’t witness the beating, there was nothing he could do about it.

Ronn had already served an enlistment in the army when he was inspired to re-enlist after hearing Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN arguing for an invasion of Iraq. “I bought it, hook, line and sinker,” he said. But, “after the life I took in my first deployment and the deceit in my second, I was done. I wouldn’t be a part of that anymore. I decided human beings weren’t made to treat each other like that.” Ronn did some writing from Iraq, began to speak out more publicly and filed a claim as a conscientious objector, but the military decided to use an administrative discharge. Ronn is relieved to be out, and plans to re-start his college career this spring. “As a 30 year-old, I don’t know how it will be going to school with 19 year-olds,” he says, but he is anxious to get to it. While he’s gathering intelligence in a new way, his classmates will have a lot to learn from him, too.

photos by Susan Van Haitsma

Camilo Mejia: private rebellion, public resistance

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by Susan Van Haitsma
also posted at makingpeace

When Camilo Mejia walked into the auditorium of UT’s Garrison Hall where he was to speak last Thursday night, his first reaction was to shake his head at the large book-cover images of himself that were projected onto screens in front. He’s a humble guy, and self-promotion is not his leaning.

But, he’s on the Resisting Empire speaking tour with the new Haymarket Books publication of The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia: An Iraq War Memoir, so he was in Austin to promote both the book and the mission of his fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War: immediate and unconditional withdrawal of occupation forces from Iraq, adequate care for all veterans and reparations for Iraq.

With his youthful good looks, casual attire and backpack slung over his shoulder, Mejia could have been one of the many students in his audience. But, when he began to speak, his seriousness revealed a deeper level of experience. He invited the five other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War who were present to join him in the front and take questions from the crowd, creating an instant IVAW panel that personified the variety of membership within the rapidly growing organization.

As chair of the board of IVAW, Mejia reported that from 7 original members who organized the group in July 2004, IVAW membership has expanded to about 1400, including the most quickly growing contingent: active duty soldiers. One of the newest chapters formed at Ft. Hood this year.

Mejia stressed the importance of the camaraderie that he and other vets experience through their involvement with IVAW. The sense of shared purpose and belonging mirrors an aspect of military life they value. He also said that in his role with IVAW, he has learned a new sense of what leadership entails: “respect, communication and shared ideals,” rather than leadership based on fear and punishment that he was trained to demonstrate as an army staff sergeant.

Mejia’s primary message is that conscience, not combat, is the source of our freedom. When a soldier is in the midst of combat, it is very difficult to think about moral implications. “You’re under so much pressure; there’s so much fear, so much fatigue.” Soldiers can’t be expected to weigh right and wrong in the middle of a firefight. Drilled in reflexive fire training and armed with powerful weapons, they don’t have to get an order to kill civilians; they’re just thrown into situations where they do it. Mejia said that in the five months he was in Iraq, his unit killed 33 civilians. Only 3 were armed.

Mejia talked about following orders to abuse Iraqi prisoners. He describes this also in the new film, Soldiers of Conscience, a documentary that happened to air in Austin the same night that Mejia spoke here. While in Iraq, Mejia felt conflicted about what he was doing, but it wasn’t until he was home on a two week leave that he had the time and distance to really think about it. “Some people say, ‘once a soldier, always a soldier,'” he says in the film. “Well, once a human being, always a human being.”

Through his interviews, his appearances in documentaries like Soldiers of Conscience and The Ground Truth, his speaking tours and in his own incisive writing, Mejia has modeled what IVAW has been aiming to do as a group through the “Winter Soldier” hearings and panels. As he said in the concluding remarks of the initial Winter Soldier hearings held in March ’08 — now transcribed in a new book (also published by Haymarket Books), Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations,

“Iraq Veterans Against the War has become a source of stress to the military brass and to the government … We have become a dangerous group of people not because of our military training, but because we have dared to challenge the official story. We are dangerous because we have dared to share our experiences, to think for ourselves, to analyze and be critical, to follow our conscience, and because we have dared to go beyond patriotism to embrace humanity.”

Winter Soldier testimony from the March hearings can be seen on the IVAW website, and the book can be ordered there, too.

As terrible as it is to hear the testimonies of these veterans, it is even more terrible to have lived the stories, either as a soldier or as an Iraqi or Afghan civilian. As US Marine veteran Anthony Swofford writes in his foreword to Winter Soldier, “Do not turn away from these stories. They are yours, too.”

As I walked home from Mejia’s presentation, I passed the UT tower on which is inscribed the new testament passage, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I passed the Cesar Chavez statue that includes several Chavez quotes, such as “You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore,” and “You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride.”

We don’t turn away from civil rights stories, from freedom movement stories, because they are our stories. Veterans who are using their voices and actions to try to stop war are joining this proud legacy, exchanging weapons for the power of truth. The freedom they are gaining is ours, too.

photo courtesy of Camilo Mejia