Published on Wednesday, July 7, 2004 by the Globe and Mail / Canada
The Mother of All Anti-War Forces
Washington's talk of Moral Clarity falls Dumb before those who have lost Children in its Wars
by Naomi Klein
There is a remarkable scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Lila Lipscomb talks with an anti-war activist outside the White House about the death of her 26-year-old son in Iraq. A pro-war passerby doesn't like what she overhears and announces, "This is all staged!"
Ms. Lipscomb turns to the woman, her voice shaking with rage, and says: "My son is not a stage. He was killed in Karbala, April 2. It is not a stage. My son is dead." Then she walks away and wails, "I need my son."
Watching Ms. Lipscomb doubled over in pain on the White House lawn, I was reminded of other mothers who have taken the loss of their children to the seat of power and changed the fate of wars. During Argentina's dirty war, a group of women whose children had been disappeared by the military regime gathered every Thursday in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. At a time when all public protest was banned, they would walk silently in circles, wearing white headscarves and carrying photographs of their missing children.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo revolutionized human-rights activism by transforming maternal grief from a cause for pity into an unstoppable political force. The generals couldn't attack the mothers openly, so they launched fierce covert operations against their organization. But the mothers kept walking, playing a significant role in the dictatorship's eventual collapse.
Unlike the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who march together every week to this day, in Fahrenheit 9/11, Lila Lipscomb stands alone, hurling her fury at the White House. But she is not alone. Other American and British parents whose children have died in Iraq are also coming forward to condemn their governments; their moral outrage could help end the military conflict still raging in Iraq.
Last week, California resident Nadia McCaffrey defied the Bush administration by inviting news cameras to photograph the arrival of her son's casket from Iraq. The White House has banned photography of flag-draped coffins arriving at air force bases, but because Patrick McCaffrey's remains were flown into the Sacramento International Airport, his mother was able to invite the photographers inside. "I don't care what [President George W. Bush] wants," Ms. McCaffery declared, telling her local newspaper, "Enough war."
Just as Patrick McCaffrey's body was being laid to rest in California, another solider was killed in Iraq: 19-year-old Gordon Gentle of Glasgow.
Upon hearing the news, his mother, Rose Gentle, immediately blamed the government of Tony Blair, saying that, "My son was just a bit of meat to them, just a number . . . This is not our war, my son has died in their war over oil."
And just as Rose Gentle was saying those words, Michael Berg happened to be visiting London to speak at an anti-war rally. Since the beheading of his 26-year-old son who had been working in Iraq as a contractor, Michael Berg has insisted that, "Nicholas Berg died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld."
Asked by an Australian journalist whether such bold statements "are making the war seem fruitless," Mr. Berg replied, "The only fruit of war is death and grief and sorrow. There is no other fruit."
It is as if these parents have lost more than their children, they have also lost their fear, allowing them to speak with great clarity and power. This represents a dangerous challenge to the Bush administration, which likes to claim a monopoly on moral clarity. Victims of war and their families aren't supposed to interpret their losses for themselves, they are supposed to leave that to the flags, ribbons, metals and three-gun salutes. Parents and spouses are supposed to accept their tremendous losses with stoic patriotism, never asking whether a death could have been avoided, never questioning how their loved ones are used to justify more killing. At Patrick McCaffrey's military funeral last week, Paul Harris, chaplain of the 579th Engineer Battalion, informed the mourners that, "What Patrick was doing was good and right and noble . . . There are thousands, no, millions, of Iraqis who are grateful for his sacrifice."
Nadia McCaffrey knows better and is insisting on carrying her son's own feelings of deep disappointment from beyond the grave. "He was so ashamed by the prisoner-abuse scandal," Ms. McCaffrey told The Independent. "He said we had no business in Iraq and should not be there." Freed from the military censors who prevent soldiers from speaking their minds when they are alive, Lila Lipscomb has also shared her son's doubts about his work in Iraq. In Fahrenheit 9/11 she reads from a letter Michael Pederson mailed home. "What in the world is wrong with George, trying to be like his dad, Bush. He got us out here for nothing whatsoever. I'm so furious right now, Mama."
Fury is an entirely appropriate response to a system that sends young people to kill other young people in a war that never should have been waged. Yet the American right is forever trying to pathologize anger as something menacing and abnormal, dismissing war opponents as hateful and, the latest slur, "wild-eyed." This is much harder to do when victims of wars begin to speak for themselves: No one questions the wildness in the eyes of a mother or father who has just lost a son or daughter, or the fury of a soldier who knows that he is being asked to kill and die needlessly.
Many Iraqis who have lost loved ones to foreign aggression have responded by resisting the occupation. Now, victims are starting to organize themselves inside the countries that are waging the war. First it was the September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which speaks out against any attempt by the Bush administration to use the deaths of their family members in the World Trade Center to justify further killings of civilians. Military Families Speak Out has sent delegations of veterans and parents of soldiers to Iraq, while Nadia McCaffrey is planning to form an organization of mothers who have lost children in Iraq.
U.S. elections always seem to swing on some parental demographic or other: Last time it was soccer moms, this time it is supposed to be NASCAR dads. But on Sunday, NASCAR car-racing champion Dale Earnhardt said that he had taken his buddies to see Fahrenheit 9/11 and that "It's a good thing as an American to go see." It seems as if there may be another demographic that swings this election: not soccer moms or NASCAR dads but the parents of victims of war. They don't have the numbers to change the outcome in swing states, but they might just change something more powerful: the hearts and minds of Americans.
Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo and Fences and Windows.
Published on Tuesday, July 6, 2004 by the Toronto Star
It's Not Always About You
by Gwynne Dyer
You can never say this without hurting the feelings of at least some Americans, but it needs to be said. At the stone-laying ceremony of July 4 on the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood, New York state governor George Pataki dedicated the building that is to replace them with the rhetoric that is standard in the United States on such occasions: "Let this great Freedom Tower show the world that what our enemies sought to destroy — our democracy, our freedom, our way of life — stands taller than ever."
But 9/11 wasn't really about any of that.
Imagine the scene: It's 1999, and a group of wild-eyed Islamist fanatics are pacing a cave in Afghanistan planning 9/11.
"We must destroy American democracy," says one. "An America run by a dictator would be a much better place."
"Yes," says the second, "and we must also curtail their freedom. Americans have too many television channels, too many breakfast cereals, and far too many kinds of makeup to choose from."
A third chimes in: "While we're at it, let's destroy their whole way of life. I've always hated American football, Oprah Winfrey sucks, and I can't stand Coca-Cola."
No? This scene doesn't ring true? Then why does almost all public discussion in the U.S. about the goals of the Islamist terrorists assume that they are driven by hatred for the domestic political and social arrangements of Americans? Because most Americans cannot imagine foreigners NOT being interested in the way they do things, let alone using the U.S. as a tool to pursue other goals entirely.
Public debate in the United States generally assumes that America is the only true home of democracy and freedom, and that other people and countries are pro-American or anti-American because they support or reject those ideals. Practically nobody on the rest of the planet would recognize this picture, but it is the only one most Americans are shown — and it has major foreign policy implications.
This is what enables President George W. Bush to explain away why the United States was attacked with the simple phrase, "They hate our freedoms," and to avoid any discussion that delves into the impact of American foreign policy in the Middle East on Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the United States. It also blinds most Americans to the nature of the strategic game that their country has been tricked into playing a role in.
So once more, with feeling: the 9/11 attacks were not aimed at American values, which are of no interest to the Islamists one way or another. They were an operation that was broadly intended to raise the profile of the Islamists in the Muslim world, but they had the further quite specific goal of luring the United States into invading Muslim countries.
The true goal of the Islamists is to come to power in Muslim countries, and their problem until recently was that they could not win over enough local people to make their revolutions happen. Getting the U.S. to march into the Muslim world in pursuit of the terrorists was a potentially promising stratagem, since an invasion should produce endless images of American soldiers killing and humiliating Muslims. That might finally push enough people into the arms of the Islamists to get their stalled revolutions off the ground.
Specifically, the Al Qaeda planners expected the U.S. to invade Afghanistan and get bogged down in the same long counter-guerrilla war that the Russians had experienced there, providing along the way years of horrifying images of American firepower killing innocent Muslims. Osama bin Laden and his colleagues were simply trying to relive their past success against the Russians and get some more mileage out of the Afghan scenario.
In fact, their plan failed: the U.S. conquered Afghanistan quickly and at a low cost in lives. Even now, despite huge American neglect, Afghanistan has not produced a major resistance movement.
The reason Al Qaeda is still in business in a big way is that the Bush administration then invaded Iraq. The Islamists were astonished, no doubt, but they knew how to exploit an opportunity when one was handed to them. And so the real game continues, while the public debate in the United States is conducted in terms that have only the most tangential contact with strategic reality.
Perhaps it's unfair to ask Pataki to get into any of that at an emotional ceremony that was in part a commemoration of the lives lost on 9/11, but when will it be addressed, and by whom? What major American public figure will stand up and say that the U.S. and its values are not really under attack; that the country and its troops are actually just being used as pawns in somebody else's strategy?
Many senior American politicians and military officers understand what is going on, but it's more than their career is worth to say so out loud.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based Canadian journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.