Iraq

The Innocent Victims

In October, a study on deaths in Iraq was published in The Lancet, the prestigious U.K.-based medical journal. Researchers determined that, as a consequence of the coalition invasion in 2003, about 655,000 Iraqis had died above the number that would be expected in a non-conflict situation. About 601,000 of these excess deaths were due to violent causes.

As an international public health professional and a pacifist, I contacted one of the authors to ask how the statistics break out for children. One of the authors confirmed that about 9 percent of those deaths were children less than 15 years of age. In the period they examined prior to the war from Jan. 1, 2002, to March 18, 2003, the study found that violent deaths of children were very rare. Since the war began, 39 percent of all deaths of children were due to violence.

Thus, as a result of this conflict, an estimated 54,000 Iraqi children have been killed by violent causes, and many of those deaths were directly attributed to coalition forces. This estimate of child deaths, by the nature of the study design, has a wide margin of error. Maybe it’s only half that—or maybe it is double. Regardless, the scale of child deaths is appalling and should shatter any images that we have of a “clean” war carried out with “smart bombs.” There is nothing clean or smart about that number.

I live in a rural, very conservative area of North Carolina where my wife is a United Methodist pastor. About a year ago I asked my Bible study class what sort of cause would be worth fighting for if the result was the unintentional killing of 30,000 children. Even though many of the participants support the war, no one could think of anything worth so high a cost in innocent life. What if it meant that we had to kill those children to make it safer for us? Still, no one could think of anything that would merit the killing of 30,000 children.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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118 Days

On Nov. 26, 2005, four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq—Tom Fox, James Loney, Norman Kember, and Harmeet Singh Sooden—were taken captive at gunpoint near the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad by men who later identified themselves as the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. Through videos and statements sent to the Arabic-language television network al-Jazeera, the captors threatened to kill the four men unless the Iraqi government freed its prisoners and U.S. and British forces left Iraq.

On March 9, 2006, Tom Fox was killed and his body dumped in a residential neighborhood in western Baghdad. He died from gunshot wounds to his head and chest. After 118 days in captivity, Loney, Kember, and Sooden were released March 23, 2006, when intelligence gathered by British forces led to a raid on the house where the men were held. The captors had left before the soldiers arrived. No one was harmed in the extraction.

During the four months that the CPT members were held, a worldwide coalition of supporters emerged—including Palestinian children, Iraqi peace activists, and Islamic political leaders. After their release, Christian Peacemaker Teams, in consultation with Iraqi partners, decided to transfer their operation to northern Iraq. CPT—which is a program of the historic peace churches in the U.S. and Canada, including Brethren, Quaker, and Mennonite churches—currently has 190 members working on projects in Iraq, Colombia, Palestine, Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and along the U.S.-Mexico border, training people of faith in the principles and practice of nonviolence to enter conflict zones and promote peace.—The Editors

We were taken one by one...an abductor at each arm, into a living room and pushed onto a couch.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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A Light Shines in the Darkness

Tom Fox was profoundly affected by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He recalled the vision held by Quaker leader George Fox in 1647 who said, “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings.”

Tom Fox’s “great opening” led him to join Christian Peacemaker Teams in 2004. “While I knew very little about CPT at the time,” Fox told CPT co-director Doug Pritchard, “I had a clear sense that I wanted very much to find some way to pull us out of the darkness and move the world (even if it was the movement of one human being) toward the light.”

Fox served in Hebron, in the West Bank—protesting the separation wall, planting olive trees, and interviewing Palestinians whose homes had been destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces—and in Iraq, accompanying refugees and shipments of medicine, interviewing incarcerated Iraqis and assisting their families, and working with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams.

After Fox was killed on March 9, 2006, his body was held at the Anaconda military base in Balat, Iraq, where CPT/Iraq member Beth Pyles kept vigil with Fox for the next 36 hours. Because he had served in the U.S. Marine Corps band for more than 20 years, Fox’s coffin was draped in an American flag and shipped to Dover Air Force Base in the United States. Next to Fox was the coffin of an Iraqi detainee who had died in U.S. custody who was being transported to Dover for an autopsy. For Fox, Pyles read aloud from John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). For his Iraqi companion, Pyles invoked the Muslim call to prayer, “Allah Akhbar” (God is great), and read from Job 1:21—“the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

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Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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'We are Still Here'

The faces of our Iraqi partners showed pain and worry in April 2006 when we asked them whether Christian Peacemaker Teams should continue to work in Iraq after Jim, Harmeet, Norman, and Tom had been taken captive and Tom had been killed. CPT’s long-term presence in Iraq began in October 2002, six months before the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Did our presence as internationals now bring too great a risk to the Iraqis around us?

“We believe you are very useful here, but you must leave Baghdad,” they told us. “We don’t want another of you to die.” Many suggested the team relocate temporarily to another part of the country where Iraqis working with us would not have the added danger.

When the team returned to the U.S. for healing and debriefing after the trauma of our colleagues’ four months of captivity, we wrestled with the voices that called us to caution and to not risk another possible tragedy. We also took seriously our commitment as Christian Peacemakers to “devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war,” as stated in our pledge. Following Jesus means expecting hardship and suffering, even the possibility of death. With much soul-searching we decided that it was still important—maybe even more important—for an international peacemaking organization to be present in Iraq.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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A Gateway to Humanity

I have always been uncomfortable with the designation “peacemaker.” “Makers” usually have an intimate relationship with their craft. How do I even begin to talk about the abstract notion of peace? We were just four men sitting in a room.

During our protracted captivity, Tom instigated a multifaith discussion forum as a way for us to cope psychologically. We would recall a proverb or quote and spend some time discussing its meanings and implications.

“I remember Tom for his outstanding humanity,” wrote fellow captive Norman Kember. “We often heard explosions in the city and he would pray for the victims and their families. He reminded us that our deprivations in captivity were paralleled by those in the lives of many in Iraq and the wider world. In captivity he volunteered to take on the greater discomforts.” The last of his discomforts was relinquishing his life.

We abhorred the thought of any payment of ransom money, taken from the impoverished in one part of the world to kill the impoverished in another. We failed the tortured Iraqi man incarcerated with us whose cries, whimpers, and terror we were only able to commit to memory.

Jim spent much time with one of our more volatile captors trying to convince him not to become a suicide bomber. He encouraged him most evenings while massaging his tense back, telling him he would make a good father.

Tom built relationships that created a sense of duty within him. He did not merely “hope for a day,” but he exercised free will—in fact, good will. In that 10-by-12-foot prison, under the constant threat of death, fettered for 23 hours a day and deprived of food, Norman, Jim, and Tom took on the responsibility for the well-being of our captors, themselves human beings under occupation. The captor we called “Uncle” responded naturally with tenderness beyond the mandate of his role when he presented us with a rose in a teacup.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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Refuse to Go

I read with great interest Stacia Brown’s article on conscientious objectors in the military (“Valor, Honor, Conscience,” September-October 2006). One sentence, however, sent chills up my spine: “So although he deployed to Iraq as ordered, [Jason] Webb would not carry a working weapon on patrols.”

I commend Webb for his conscientious objector stand, but I wonder if his comrades were aware that Webb was endangering their lives. Soldiers depend on one another for protection, and Webb was intentionally unable to provide such protection. Their lives were placed in jeopardy. I wish Webb had stated his objection to war, refused to go to Iraq, and accepted the consequences of his refusal. By doing what he did, he made it all about himself. I hope other COs simply refuse to go rather than refuse to fight.

F. William Hodge
East Hampton, Connecticut

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Sojourners Magazine December 2006
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Valor, Honor, Conscience

When Jason Webb joined the Army in 2004, he hoped his assignment as a telecommunications operator would keep him at arm’s length from combat. Though Webb, now 24, wanted to serve his country, he felt uneasy about killing another human being. He hoped a desk job would save him from a crisis of conscience.

It didn’t. After seven months stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, Webb decided he could no longer live with himself if he stayed in the Army, so he applied for honorable discharge as a conscientious objector (CO) under Army Regulation 600-43. Several weeks later, with his CO application still in process, Webb was deployed to Iraq. A graduate of The Master’s College, an evangelical Christian school in California, Webb knew his family wanted him to fulfill his term of service. He also knew he couldn’t fire a gun at another person. So although he deployed to Iraq as ordered, Webb would not carry a working weapon on patrols. Now he had nothing but conscience to protect him.

“The reason God has given [humans] a conscience is to be a moral compass,” Webb wrote in his application for classification as a CO, “to serve as a guide to what is right and what is wrong. It is for that reason that I cannot kill, participate in warfare, or support any organization that does.”

Webb’s transformation from enlister to objector is not an aberration. Since the start of operations in Iraq in March 2003, a growing number of American soldiers have been seeking CO discharges. How many remains disputed. According to an Army Public Affairs spokesperson, 188 soldiers applied for CO discharges between January 2003 and December 2005; of those applications, 87 were approved.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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First Day on the Job

Congratulations to Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the new head of al Qaeda in Iraq. It’s a challenging job, but he clearly has the right stuff to lead, such as knowing which end of the gun the bullets come out of. We mention this only because apparently this fact was not known to his predecessor, Abu Musab “Big Al” al-Zarqawi, who was shown in a video requiring assistance from henchpersons before he accidentally shot off a toe. (It’s hard to inspire allegiance from international jihadists when you shoot yourself in the foot. Somebody else’s foot, maybe, but not your own.)

President George W. Bush immediately gave al-Muhajir the official United States seal of approval by publicly announcing he is “on our list to bring to justice.” That pretty much makes al-Muhajir the poster boy for thousands of young men in the Islamist world, so heckofajob, Mr. President. (White House officials privately conceded their relief at having a new face of evil in Iraq. They hadn’t had one since Dick Cheney left after his last visit.) Badumbump.

In case the world had any doubts about the virility and resolve of the new terrorist leader, a photo recently released by al-Jazeera (motto: “All the news that really annoys Americans”) shows al-Muhajir firing an AK-47 outfitted with an extra large ammunition magazine. He didn’t come right out and say it, but his message was clear: “My ammo clip is bigger than your ammo clip.” The photo also revealed that al-Muhajir is quite the man of fashion, cutting an impressive figure in his slate gray skullcap with matching boot-cut pants, accented by a dark beige bullet-proof vest. Terrorism is not pretty, but nobody said it has to be ugly.

Al-Muhajir’s first day on the job was probably typical of what any new hire would experience at the office. First on the itinerary is finding out where the office supplies are kept; you know, copy paper, Post-it notes, rocket-propelled grenades. And then he met with his staff:

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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Iraq Vets Take on Washington

During the Vietnam War, it took more than a decade before returning soldiers posed a serious challenge to congressional incumbents and Washington’s status quo. In the case of the Iraq war, it has taken less than three years.

These soldier-candidates are offering Americans a firsthand perspective on the conduct and consequences of the Iraq war and the needs that arise for the men and women being asked to fight it. For example, Tammy Duckworth of the Illinois Army National Guard lost both of her legs in 2004 when the helicopter she was piloting was hit by a grenade. She is seeking to win the open seat left by the retiring Rep. Henry Hyde in Illinois’ 6th District.

“From a policy perspective,” says Duckworth, who is running as a Democrat, “invading Iraq was a mistake.” Yet she is equally convinced that it is not in our national interest “to leave Iraq in chaos and risk allowing a country with unlimited oil wealth to become a base for terrorists.”

Andrew Duck, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq, is challenging a seven-term Republican incumbent to represent Maryland’s 6th District. He believes that the U.S. can neither “set a timetable for withdrawal” nor coast along on the president’s platitude to “stay the course.” Duck advocates better diplomacy to “internationalize the effort,” the closing of Guantanamo, a congressional investigation of prisoner abuse, ongoing training of Iraqi security forces, and an increase in “troop strength in Iraq, with allied cooperation, to a level that provides security for daily living.”

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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9/11, Five Years On

We are five years away now from the incineration of the Twin Towers when, in one blow, 19 radical religious zealots with a memory for Crusades and a hatred for the United States turned the world upside down. Or we did. It’s very hard to tell five years later who really did more of the turning.

What specific concerns drove these men to the point where they would give up their own lives just to injure ours is hard to tell. Few asked, and fewer still seemed to care. In the midst of national grief—and for many, anger—all that mattered, apparently, was who to strike in retaliation. Anybody would do, it seemed. And so we did.

The world needn’t have changed the day the Towers went down or even, perhaps, with the military attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. It certainly changed, however, on the day when, without clear proof of Iraq’s involvement, without undeniable certainty, without the approval of most of the world, the United States roared over Iraq on bombing raids and rolled into Baghdad to tear down the statue of Saddam Hussein.

On that day—not long after the whole world had grieved with us over the merciless loss of 3,000 innocent U.S. lives—the world divided in its loyalties, most of them against us.

Now the United States, once the most open country in the world, has become a country under siege. Now we make 80-year-old widows and 6-year-old boys take off their shoes in our airports to make sure they are not carrying explosives designed to harm us again. Now we have been longer at war with the ghosts of these 19 men than we were with Nazi Germany in World War II. Now we have become invaders, torturers, paranoid partners in global destabilization. The people who would “meet us with flowers singing in the streets” have left us with more than 18,000 wounded, 10,000 of them permanently disabled, and more than 2,500 dead.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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