On the evening of June 3, 2008, four independent journalists met at Town Hall in New York City to discuss the Iraq War and the crimes that have been committed by our government and abetted by our government. It was billed as True Crimes and hosted by The Nation magazine. The amount of criminal activity discussed by Seymour Hersh, Chris Hedges, Jeremy Scayhill, and Laila al-Arian was so far over the top of what is reported in the media most people attend to, that at times, and for good reason, many of us cried while listening to them speak.
Seymour Hersh strove to moderate the discussion more than he contributed to it. There was a reason for that that came out at the end during the Q and A from the audience. He is working on an article about Iran and the possibility of a new war there. Due to his feelings of professional responsibility, he decided not to scoop himself. But from what he had to say, or would allow himself to say, there is growing evidence that we will be going to war with Iran. As he so clearly said, “This administration will not quit work until 11:59 on January 20, 2009. You cannot assume that no matter what happens on November 4, 2008 that they will step aside.” In fact, he warned that their time table may be turned up if it looks like the Democrats will win.
Of course, the news that really came out of this meeting was that there is no good news whatsoever. When Jeremy Scayhill, who writes for The Nation, spoke about Blackwater, and the role it and a whole host of other companies are playing in the war in Iraq, the news there was not just awful but disturbing. As any for-profit company does, Blackwater protects its own bottom line and despite the fact that the US government is in the throes of outsourcing a substantial amount of its defense, technology, intelligence and other activities to companies like Blackwater, there is no oversight and these mercenaries are not truly a part of this country’s defense or owe it any loyalty. American service people take an oath to defend the constitution, Blackwater’s employees do not.
The most prominent news story that many may have seen in the news was about Blackwater’s actions last September in Nisoor Square in Baghad when they shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians. Having opened fire on a car that was in their way, they killed not just the occupants of that car but other civilians who got caught up in the event as it was unfolding. There has been no prosecution of these men, no diminution of the contracts with Blackwater and as of April, another $1 billion contract was signed with them.
Blackwater is a large and growing mercenary company with deep roots in the Christian Right and along with other mercenary companies is intent on continuing their relationship with the US government and of course with any other country willing to pay for its services. Lest we be too caught up in blaming the Bush administration solely for the rise of mercenaries, Scayhill informed us that this all began with the Clinton administration but has probably gone on steroids with the Bush administration.
Moving from the frightening development of for hire soldiers, the discussion turned to the plight of the Iraqis themselves. Laila al-Arian, who is a producer for Al Jazeera, English, spoke movingly about the plight of those Iraqis in the diaspora as well as what has happened to those who are left in Iraq. Since we have unleashed an ethnic war in Iraq, the whole population has shifted and moved due to security as well as military reasons. In Syria and Jordan, large numbers of displaced Iraqis live in squalid situations with no money for anything let alone to send their children to school. Think about the repercussions of this generation brought up in war time and uneducated and you will begin to have more nightmares about what is to come. Further, she expressed the Iraqis’ frustration with American lack of resolve to help those who seek refugee status in this country. In Sweden, she said, 30,000 Iraqis have been re-settled while in the States, just a few thousand so far have been able to come and be re-settled. (In the news today, there was a report that we have finally opened a center in Baghdad to speed this process along, but given our track record, this may be another false hope dished out to people who have suffered the most at our hands.) What Laila al-Arian pointed out more than any other speaker was how rarely the Iraqi people are mentioned in any of our discussions about what to do in Iraq. The tenor of the talk is always about what we should do, what our responsibilities are and not what the people there would like to see happen. It stands to reason, I suppose, that as occupiers we are generally most concerned with our own interests. Yet even when these journalists talked, it was only she who seemed concerned with the fate of the Iraqis.
When the Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW) member, Sgt. Camilo Mejia, got up to speak last night, the discussion returned to the reality of what a war does to those who serve in it. He was both eloquent and passionate in describing what he recalls from his time in Iraq. Other members of the IVAW were there as well. According to Mejia, there are 16,000 active-duty Army and Marines who are refusing re-deployment. This group is a vital part of the anti-war movement, and really deserve our support. There will be a book out in September reporting on the Winter Soldier meetings that took place in Washington this past March.
As Mejia spoke about the brutal memories he carries around in his head, I took note of how the audience and myself responded to his descriptions of the brutal horror of it. None of us could keep from either crying or hanging our heads. And of course, none of these memories would be ones we would choose to have to recall. Nor would we want to have had to do what these men and women have done. Many of them need counseling and yet they return home and have to fight for that as well.
The good news that night, which Mejia reported, was that the Canadian Parliament had that very day voted to grant US war resisters asylum and for the first time all evening, there was really something to cheer about.
If you have not read Chris Hedges’ writings on war and not been reading the work he has lately done on the fascist turn in our country’s life, then you are missing out on one of the most interesting and challenging reporters working today. Hedges understands what the thrill of war is and why it is so easy to sell. He is also deeply afraid by the right turn our country has taken and in particular the ways in which the Christian fundamentalists have destroyed the core foundation of our country and begun marching us towards a fascist state.
Hedges and al-Arian also spoke about their new book, Collateral Damage, in which they report on their conversations with 50 service men and women about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. We do not spend enough time talking about the ways in which the wars have altered the people we sent off to fight. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the levels of suicide and homicide committed by these people and we don’t seem to care either. I have not yet had a chance to read this new book, but did read the introduction to it on tomsdispatch.com today and urge you to do the same.
Finally, I need to write here a bit about my reaction to all this information that came at me last night. What to make of it all? As Chris Hedges said, “It is pure insanity what we are witnessing happening all around us.” Our futures, it seems to me, have been placed in some kind of limbo while we wait to see just how far the Bush administration will go in its efforts to start a war with Iran. We have AIPAC running its major policy session this week in Washington with Obama, McCain and Clinton all needing to speak there and assure them of their allegiance to the State of Israel, which is odd because they are not Israeli citizens. Yet, such things, this kind of right wing, reactionary war mongering goes on and on. It is never questioned seriously by anyone in power because it seems to have become the point of having power, to become engaged in war.
The twin monsters of greed and war have been allowed dominance in our new world order while other values, such as empathy and generosity are seen as effeminate weaknesses. I don’t think that the level of violence or the hunger for power that has swept through our country and has led to the bankrupting of all social nets is a coincidence or an unintended consequence. It is what was intended all along.
None of these thoughts sat well with me. So when I was trying to find my way out of the building after this long discussion, a tall gentleman handed me a postcard that said, “Psychopaths Rule our World: 6% of the world’s population are born genetic psychopaths, do you know what that means for the rest of us?” Momentarily, I was stunned by the words. What did this mean? But I didn’t have the foresight to ask him when he handed me the card. But I saw him again in the lobby and asked for an explanation. He began telling me in the nicest way possible that it was important to get rid of those who had DNA markers for psychopathology and when I objected that that was a form of fascism, he laughed at me and said did I want more people like Bush to be president? I tried to tell him that there was a difference between sociopaths and psychopaths and he then informed me that in the US we make that distinction. Anyway, we went back and forth at each other for some time and the discussion itself was not that important, what is important was I realized then just how upset I was from the proceedings I had just observed. I told him that, we shook hands and he left me to my own thoughts.
I walked out of the building towards Times Square where I saw NYPD wearing all kinds of protective garments and carrying what looked like to me lethal assault weapons. I had no idea what was going on, but there were police everywhere, in all kinds of uniforms. I did not feel safer or more protected by this display of force but rather that at any moment some kind of lethal attack could occur and I could be caught in the crossfire. This, I said to myself, is the world we live in and got out of the area quickly.