Monday, May 18, 2009

LA's Hammer Museum - It Is What It is...Conversations about Iraq

May 16 I was invited to LA's Hammer Museum to participate as a “guest expert" in Jeremy Deller's installation, " It Is What It is...Conversations about Iraq". With participants from diverse backgrounds participating in the 3 hour conversation, I shared my experiences of Iraq - and in my case, also Israel, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan as described in the book, Long Time Passing.

Prior to these Conversations, British artist Jeremy Deller and his colleagues had towed a rusted hulk of a suicide bombed vehicle (looked like it been a passenger sedan) around the US and engaged Americans about war and its consequences. (The vehicle can be seen in the foreground of a couple of photos.)

Asked why he chose to do an installation of this sort in the US and not in the UK, Jeremy Deller responded, "...I think there’s a massive gap in information and sensible discussion about Iraq. Still. It’s patronizing thing to say, I know, but it might be needed slightly more here. It’s not that Britain is better -- It’s not great, but I think Britain isn’t so oppositional in terms of discussion. ... It is your war, after all. It isn’t a British war. We just tagged along."

While this "massive gap in information" and the "oppositional" nature "in terms of discussion" is true at the US macrocosm, at the microcosm of the Hammer Museum courtyard, participants really reached out to engage one another and me.

I found this exhibit by British artist Jeremy Deller, true to how he envisioned and designed it. The diverse group of individuals who showed up to talk candidly and with real curiosity was most welcome.

It was, as we say, "a thing of beauty"!

What was beautiful about it? Discussion participants were random members of the local community visiting the museum. While the event was advertised and some participants came specifically to attend, many folks who joined in were simply passing by. They found a seat and joined a wide ranging conversation from:

military recruitment in middle and high schools: "When I was in high school military recruiters would come into our classes and could take up a whole hour handing out surveys (we had to put our contact info on the survey, name, email, and phone number) and talking to us about what a great career we faced in the military. Some days I'd go from one class to another and the same recruiter would be in the next class doing the same thing...."

mothers and women possess a huge untapped potential to end war and perpetuate peace: "we men have messed things up so badly - these wars, the economy, the environment, and so on - and I think it is time you women have a chance to rectify these male-dominated wrongs. I'm not suggesting that women simply take over but we need women to be more pro-active and forceful, not just to demonstrate and crowd into Congress but to really strategize for the long term...."

combat troops need to find a way to forgive themselves for what they've done in war: "I'm Israeli and I served in the IDF. In the US, one thing "we" ("average Americans") are not recognizing is that many troops have done things in the heat of combat that they recognize they should not have done...and they cannot forgive themselves for it. But "we" need to find ways to forgive them too...."

We ventured into many other topics (each "expert" had a three hour shift...and every idea is worthy of discussion). I'll surface more of these topics in future posts as they are drifting around in the American macrocosm at some level albeit with different levels of opposition. It is essential that we surface these topics and engage them in ways that accepts yet marginalized disrespectful opposition - since it is the way we Americans oppose ideas that is so damaging to ongoing conversations. (This takes a particular type of that breaks the current mold and is more participative. More on that in future posts....)

The Hammer Museum event appeared to invigorate all participants and each of us was candid (no one was attacked for holding the 'wrong' view) and questioning. This allowed a blossoming of even further openness to engage 'hot' topics....

See pictures from the event.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Petition First Lady Michelle Obama

Sign the Petition

Dear First Lady Michelle Obama,

We The People:

  • Appreciate your message that you are our friend in the White House
  • Appreciate your commitment to American military families and the mothers and fathers who have lost their beloved children to war...
  • Appreciate your understanding how husbands and wives at home are keeping their families on track while their wives and husbands are deployed...and how grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers are taking care of children while single moms or dads in uniform are away.
  • ...and we agree with you that our nation must do everything in our power to support them.

And we also recognize that there are hundreds of thousands of families - mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers - in the Middle East and, now, Afghanistan and Pakistan in Central Asia, who have lost their beloved children to war and its aftermath. They also need our support… our understanding…and our friendship.

Here are just four snippets from more than 30 verbatim stories shared in the book, Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror:

  • In Iraq, Anwar Jeward challenged:

    "Tell Americans there is tragedy in Iraq!"
    (Anwar's husband and three children were shot to death in a Baghdad street.)

  • In Afghanistan, Fatima Akbar suggests:

    “The message I’d like to share is that women who want to do something should never think that we cannot do it. If we are willing to try it, we are always capable of doing it.”
    (Fatima spent nine years as a refugee in Iran where she learned to make furniture.)

  • Israeli mother Nurit Peled Elhanan says:

    “Bush, Saddam, Milosovic…they are all the same. These politicians have a mafia logic and they use our kids like chips in a gambling game…then, when our kids get killed they say, “Oops, sorry!” and they move on…”
    (Nurit's daughter died in a suicide bombing; her two oldest sons are IDF refusers working with Palestinians as Combatants for Peace.)

  • In a small south Lebanon village, Elham asks:

    “Why do American women send their children to die in Iraq? Is it for democracy? Shouldn’t democracy be built by the people? Shouldn’t it come from within and not be imposed from outside? If it is imposed by those outside, isn’t that occupation?”
    (Elham's home was one of over 30,000 damaged or destroyed during the 33 Day War against Lebanon in summer 2006.)

In the U.S., our young people -- as young as 17- and 18-years old -- can make legally binding choices independent of parents and family, to enlist in the military. As you know, many parents go along with this choice, believing that the military will somehow teach their child discipline. It may very well do that but it also teaches our children to kill. Or to be killed. This is what most Americans refuse to openly acknowledge: that they have allowed their child to learn how to kill other mothers’ children…or be grievously wounded or killed themselves. And for what?

First Lady Michelle Obama, be a true friend in the White House. Be a true friend to our military families and urge your husband to really bring loved ones home… no more subterfuge about ending the war in Iraq just to hand over its management to contractors while we ratchet up another war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Be a true friend to families in America, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, West Bank and Gaza, Syria, Lebanon by reading the candid stories of mothers, fathers, troops, and bereaved families struggling with the effects of war and terror.

As First Lady you can help the American People understand the implications of war on our nation and on other nations. We urge you to raise your awareness about the plight of our military youth and families in other lands. Please

  • -- order an author autographed hardcover edition of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror from the website

  • -- order a hardcover edition from any bookstore or online

  • -- I feel so strongly that you must read Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror that I’m sending a copy to you at:

    First Lady Michelle Obama
    White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
    Washington DC 20500

Then work with your husband to end the policies that perpetuate these wars….

Sign the Petition

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

What if, this year, American mothers refused Mother's Day brunch and, instead, learned about war?

For the last four years I've traveled around the Greater Middle East gathering stories and bringing home messages of peace to American mothers.
My journey began when I met Amwar Jeward in Iraq in 2004. I was there to visit my son on a military base and to tell him, "Don't do anything in this country that you'll be ashamed of as it will haunt you for the rest of your life." Anwar related how her husband and three children were shot to death while driving in the family car in their Baghdad neighborhood.
The perpetrators of this "random shooting incident" were young Army personnel...those who now live with the shame of this event for the rest of their lives.
Anwar said, "Tell Americans there is tragedy in Iraq."
I took up her challenge and expanded it into a "big picture view" that includes Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria, Israel and the West Bank, and the US.
In a small south Lebanon village, five months after the so-called "33 Day War" of 2006, Elham said, "Please, tell American mothers to try to feel how Arab women feel - Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi; like you, none of us want to lose our sons, our families, our communities to war."
In K'far Kila, on the Lebanon/Israel border, as I sat with her family watching "reality TV" showing American troops blown up by IEDs in Iraq, Fatima said, "We mothers have more in common with one another than we do with the policians that run our countries. Mothers must work together for peace."
Israeli mother Nurit Peled Elhanan, who lost her daughter to a suicide bomb yet continues to work for peace, concurs. "Bush, Sharon, Milosovic, Saddam, they are all the same. They share a Mafia logic and they use our kids like chips in a gambling game. Then, when our kids get killed they say, 'Oops, sorry!' and they move on. When this war is over, there'll be another war...because the politicians always need a war, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on people who are different...."
Indeed, it is this Mafia logic that continues to send our American youth to wars perpetrated by the politicians of our country.
But it is We the People who stand by and let that happen. And we, the mothers, who can refuse our children to war.
Imagine if, on Mothers Day, American mothers said, "Thank you, but instead of going out for brunch this year, let us stay home as a family and, together, learn more about Afghanistan, Afghan culture, and why that war is raging. Why, for example, were 150 people, mostly women and children, killed by US bombs this week? How does the most powerful military in the world mistakenly bomb 17 civilians homes? Who will recompense those families? And how?
Imagine American mothers saying, "Instead of brunch, let us stay home and learn how the US military coerces our young people into enlisting. Let's learn how those young people are threatened with fines, law suits, and imprisonment when they want to break their flimsy contracts.
Imagine mothers saying, "This year let us see through the propaganda about the "right to defend oneself" and reach out to mothers in Israel and Palestine and listen to their stories. Let us listen to the stories of hundreds of thousands of refugee mothers in makeshift camps in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Let us listen to them about who they are rather than to our politicians telling us who they are.
Imagine mothers saying, "This Mother's Day let us learn about war so that we can learn about how to create peace for all our communities."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5 - Some Thoughts

As the West Coast portion of the book tour ends and I head to the East Coast for the next phase, some thoughts....

Many of us who have been engaged with the Global War on Terror since its inception are still around, active, and just as resistant to war! As I did then, I still view the GWOT as propaganda for a nationalistic fervor that is a cover for activities that Naomi Klein identifies in her book, The Shock Doctrine. (Remember that litany of propaganda: "Saddam is responsible for 9/11" - some Americans still believe this; then "Saddam has WMD and is a direct threat to US," then "Saddam should be removed because he's killed so many of his people"?)

Over the last four years, my resistance took a slightly different form based upon my own particular worldview: that of an emigrant from apartheid South Africa, a sojourner in Israel during the late 1970s, and as a young adult immigrant to the US. When I understood that I'd assumed too much about what the US military is and does...and my own child enlisted... I also understood that, because I was "busy" with parenthood, school, work, and so on, I'd taken my eye off what I'd already learned in my homeland: that one needs to be vigilant about politics and politicians.

Accordingly, when I traveled to Iraq to talk to my son about the sorts of things that can happen in war...actions that can damage human psyches for a lifetime... I also determined to share the stories of other women and mothers...especially those of mothers in the Greater Middle East and Afghanistan. For there is a tendency in American mainstream culture - indeed, even in progressive political culture - to perpetuate an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. This means that if it does not impact you and your family directly, why bother with it, why pay attention? (In progressive circles this showed up as labeling the war in Afghanistan "righteous" while the the war in Iraq was "illegal.")

A word about Attitudes
These short-sighted attitudes perpetuate the same kind of thinking that goes into attitudes about how we manage our trash. A mainstream notion holds that throwing trash into a "dump" magically "disappears" it into the great trash pile in the sky, that it is "taken care of" and that it won't come back in mutated form to haunt us.

Of course I'm not equating our military personnel with "trash" - my own beloved son served honorably in the military and I have a deep respect and compassion for our youth who serve.

What I'm surfacing is an attitude, a worldview, a set of unconscious assumptions that guide our thinking and that we take for granted.... In the case of trash, "we" in the West assume our trash magically disappears rather than, in the best case scenario, ending up as local landfill. Two worse case scenarios that we're beginning to recognize:
- that great trash pile in the sky is really a floating and growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch apparently hundreds of square miles wide....
- toxic dumping of used and "recycled" materials from Western countries litters developing nations. (A small number of journalists are reporting that the "piracy problem" touted as "a direct threat to "our" national security" is really an attempt by local seafarers to ensure that no more toxic trash is dumped on their lands. With the disintegration of these nation states there is no longer a system of defense against those dumping toxic waste "pirates" try to protect their sovereign shores.)

Point is, just as many of us assume that trash magically disappears into thin air simply because we no longer see it, too many of us assume that youth enlisting in the military magically comes home healthy, wealthy, and wiser for the experience. That assumption continues to perpetuate the believe that there is no need to "support the troops" other than by slapping a magnetic yellow ribbon on one's car and letting the troops take care of themselves, when they get home let 'em eat cake ...and "pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps" as they're eating it....

Instead, our highly trained militarized youth returns to an environment that, frequently, refuses to hear their stories or hold their anguish and, often, their shame. The troops are often a source of deep truth when they tell their stories of war and a real inspiration.

As one Iraq war veteran told me, “Most people on the streets don’t want to know what has to happen for them to have one of the highest living standards in the world… just like you don’t want to see the back room of the butcher shop….”

Nevertheless, when they resort to violence at home, We the People are shocked! We wonder why. But in the worldview of those now trained as combat troops, violence is a solution that they've learned is sanctioned by their military and their government. Isn't this common sense?

In my book, Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror I explore the plight of military personnel. I also present the stories of real people affected by war and terror in the lands in which the US is carrying out an outmoded foreign policy. I bring verbatim stories of people "over there" in an attempt to recognize that I - with my Western worldview - cannot interpret their stories and 'make them fit' my own ideological system. Moreover, I want the women whose stories are shared in the book to recognize themselves, their words, their anguish... It is not up to me to "use" or co-opt their stories to fit a narrative that may not portray them wholly as who they are. Indeed, this has been done repeatedly to these women and I, as a woman and a mother, will not perpetuate a system of co-optation that is, essentially, exploitative - even when it is carried out for a "good" cause.

Let me clearly state that every time I approached a woman, man or young person to share her/his perspective - whether in Iraq, Israel, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria or in the US and Afghanistan - I began by ensuring that the potential narrator understood that my own son was active duty military. This because I wanted to approach them with full integrity and give each narrator the opportunity to share - or not - from her/his full integrity and understanding. There was never a single case that a narrator backed away from me because of my status as "military mom" (that is, in the GME or Central Asia; there were a few cases in the US). Most were voluble and, among other things, wanted to understand why, for example, "American mothers send their children to die in Iraq?"

We had deep conversations about the different concepts that guide our cultures - differences in how young people make decisions, why young men and women become "martyrs" and what that word means in the that specific region, why many Israeli mothers fear the day their children turn 18 years old (that is the age their children are conscripted to the Israeli Defense Force)... about occupation sold to citizens as "democracy"... and why we elect the leaders we do....

While Western and Middle Eastern and Afghan cultures are fundamentally different - essentially, the first is individualist while the other two are collectivist - those of us affected by war understand that we want the same essential things from life: healthy families, good educations for our children and our citizens, safety and security in our neighborhoods, and stable governments concerned with the needs of citizens, the environment, and the economy. These are the values that bind us as human beings beyond the local propaganda sold in the US as "they hate us for our freedoms"....

For none of us is safe if some of us are lacking these essentials. Here in the US, we must not "throw away" our young enlisted youth because it doesn't suit our schedules or worldviews to pay closer attention....

Why should it take a burgeoning suicide rate among active duty and veteran communities for Americans to acknowledge the effects of war?

After the horrors of Vietnam - over 50,000 dead Americans and millions of Vietnamese still suffering - what didn't We the People learn about war?

Why are military recruiters allowed to fulfill their enlistment quotas by resorting to lies and coercion to enlist our vulnerable youth ?

What is it about our system of defense and "national security" that is making all of us less safe... and more prone to dualistic, fundamentalist, black/white thinking?

As Americans we have some serious questions to ask ourselves and our culture.

May 3, 2009 - Downtown Los Angeles

This event was very intense. Speakers included:

  • Rossana Cambron, a member of the San Gabriel Chapter of Military Families Speak Out, whose son is an active US service member completing a tour in Iraq

  • Cole Miller is the Founding Director of No More Victims and co-creator and producer of an award-winning co-environmentally focused radio series, Isla Earth. He travels frequently to the Middle East, and manages the day-to-day operations of NMV

  • Suhaila Nasir, co-founder of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund who lived through al Nakba, the partition of Palestine, the 1948 Palestine War and the beginning of the Palestinian refugee problem

  • Patty Domay, a local citizen activist who works to oppose military recruiters in her neighborhood

  • MC: Eisha Mason, Host of KPFK's Morning Review, Assoc. Regional Director, AFSC-Pacific SW Region

  • POETRY: Vivien Sansour, a native of Palestine, poems will include: "Live From Gaza" and "A letter from an Israeli soldier to his mother."

Patty Domay spoke first about her conficts with military recruiters in the barrio in which she lives. These guys, she says, prey on the young, vulnerable, and idealistic youth already struggling for an identity in a culture that denigrates them. Patty is mother and friend to all the young people - and their families - in her neighborhood and fights for their lives as if they were her own children.

Rossana Cambron brought a reality to the event that shook many of us to the core: her beloved son was, that very day, deploying back to Iraq! This is his second tour of duty. His mother was eloquent in describing her anguish.

Suhaila Nasir, a Palestinian American, shared the history of her own mother who, in her search for a home after she was displaced from Beir Zeit, held 5 different passports in various stages of her life. I was elated to find that Sunhila is related to Violet, whose story is shared in my book, Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, I visited Violet and her husband's home in Beirut and she shared the story of her displacement from Beir Zeit.

Vivien Sansour, also Palestinian American, shared her poetry. I"m not going to describe it here other than to say this poetry is a "must hear." I'll share it on Raising Sand Radio next week so be sure to listen in.

Cole Miller talked about the genesis of No More Victims, a project that brings seriously wounded Iraqi children to the US for reconstructive surgery.

Meanwhile, see pix at the blog photo gallery.

May 3, 2009 - Santa Monica Pier

Arlington West Memorial, a project of Veterans for Peace, offers visitors a graceful, visually and emotionally powerful, place for reflection. Every Sunday from sunrise to sunset, a temporary memorial is created on the beaches of Southern California just north of the world famous pier at Santa Monica, California. There is another such memorial at the Sterns Wharf in Santa Barbara.

Just this week six more US military personnel were killed in Iraq. In Santa Monica at Arlington West a sign displays this statistic as well as the overall number of US military personnel killed -- at least the number that is shared for public consumption.

Arlington West at Santa Monica Pier is a beautiful setting for such a stark demonstration of the effects of war. A visitor is struck by the sheer number of dead: each white cross represents one death. Recently a section of red crosses has been added: each red cross represents 10 deaths. The red segment is growing.

(What is not shared is the "body count" of dead Iraqi and Afghans in this war. These numbers are "unknown" although there are at least three studies conducted by reputable academic institutions presenting their finding. All are far above what our former president shrugged off as "about 30,000"....)

Veterans for Peace sponsors this project and many other groups help as, each Sunday, the area honors the dead by erecting all the crosses at dawn then taking them down at sunset. This has been going on faithfully for several years.

I added the names of Karen Meredith's son, Lt. Ken Ballard, Nadia McCaffrey's son, Patrick McCaffrey, and Mary Tillman's son, Pat Tillman. Each of these woman had to toil long and hard to learn the actual circumstances of their children's deaths. For Mary Tillman, the work took many bizarre turns as then Sec Def Rumsfeld lied about the circumstances to propagandize for the war. Mary wrote the book, Boots on the Ground at Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman. (See pix at the blog photo gallery.)

I also remembered the name of the captain of my son's unit who was killed by a new fangled IED in Iraq in September 2008. I did not share that name there as I'm not sure how his parents and family might feel about me, a stranger, sharing their beloved child's name at Arlington West. Nevertheless, that young man's name is seared on my memory as it is, I'm sure, seared onto my own child's memory.

May 2, 2009 - Coffee Strong

Coffee Strong is a GI supported coffee shop at the gates of US Army Base Ft. Lewis - one of the many small businesses lining the street that caters to military personnel. Surplus stores abound along this street along with banks offering loans to GIs. It was raining when we arrived ("we" being Karen Jones of CRP and Martina, a friend). Inside, several young men slept on a sofa or in arms chairs: they'd been hard at work during the night blockading a convoy of Strykers bound for Iraq. They managed to delay the convoy several hours. Nevertheless, right now, those Strykers are bound for that country where there is, in the lingo We The People are learning to adopt, "an uptick in violence." Those pesky Iraqis - don't they know that "we're pulling the troops out"?. I imagine the Iraqis saying, "those pesky Americans...don't they know that we're not falling for that propaganda?"

Go to Raising Sand Radio to listen to an audio segment from the presentations at Coffee Strong and Portland.

A word about Coffee Strong: this business is an example of the sorts of creative endeavors that troops are generating to support themselves and their fellow as they adjust to the reality of life after or on leave from combat and what it means to be a veteran. In some cases, customers are active duty personnel (a valid ID gets you a free cup of Americano!) others are resisters, IRR (Individual Ready Reserve) or discharged troops. Support the troops by supporting the ways they are creating alternatives to "business as usual"... you can stipend Coffee Strong with a small, regular donation each month and help them stay in business as they get on their collective feet. (See pix at the blog photo gallery.)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

May 2, 2009

Pacific Northwest Rocks!

One more event in the Puget Sound area today... Coffee Strong, a GI supported coffee shop located in Lakewood right near the entrance to US Army base Ft. Lewis.
Last night I was in Tacoma at the 1st United Methodist Church where the people are so generous and warm-hearted. This church reaches out to residents in an area that is seeing its share of urban stress - misuse of drugs and alcohol, stressed families, for example - and they're doing it with heart, spirit, and an excellent understanding of how these stresses come about.

This afternoon I visit Coffee Strong, 15109 Union Ave SW #2, in Lakewood where I'll ask veterans to share their stories. It is the veterans and those directly affected by the combat zones who have the most to teach "us" - American citizens - about war. Too often, though, the response these vets get from the citizens is an implicit request for silence.

As one vet told me, “Most people on the streets don’t want to know what has to happen for them to have one of the highest living standards in the world… just like you don’t want to see the back room of the butcher shop….”
The troops are often a source of deep truth when they tell their stories of war and a real inspiration.

I'll be airing some of the audio from the various stops on Monday's Raising Sand Radio so listen it when you can. The website carries all shows for free download:

Friday, May 1, 2009

April 30, Seattle - Keystone Congregational Church

A lovely sunny spring day in Seattle and an audience of Seattle's concerned citizen-activists attended the book event at Keystone Congregational Church. (see pix)
Karen Jones spoke of Collateral Repair Project. "Wissam" - an Iraqi refugee and college student - shared the story of her family who had to flee to Damascus from Baghdad. She is their sole support.
Listen to her story on Raising Sand Radio for week of May 3.