Democracy Now! CHAPTER 1
THE WAR AND PEACE REPORT
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask—and rightly so—what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
—From “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967
The United States is engaged in what can only be called endless war. The war in Afghanistan is the longest in US history. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, launched in 2003 based on lies that are far too often described politely as “faulty intelligence,” killed hundreds of thousands of people, if not over a million, and displaced many millions more. Despite the US troop withdrawal in 2011, Iraq is still consumed by violence, which has spilled over to further inflame the massively destructive Syrian civil war. Elsewhere, US special forces wage clandestine operations in the dark of night, killing and kidnapping. Guantánamo Bay’s notorious prison complex exists outside the reach of courts, the press, or any sense of due process, as men arbitrarily swept off the dusty roads of distant countries and held without charge continue to engage in hunger strikes to protest their imprisonment.
The coverage of war is critical to our mission at Democracy Now! Our first broadcast was on Monday, February 19, 1996. It was the day before the New Hampshire primary. When we looked into that primary, into that state, we found a striking intersection of issues that would come to be central to our journalism at Democracy Now!: war, race, and the power of the media.
So much of US presidential electoral politics is shaped by two of the whitest states in the nation: Iowa, with its caucus vote taking place first in the nation every four years, followed by the New Hampshire primary. Presidential campaigns have now become, essentially, permanent, with presidential hopefuls visiting Iowa and New Hampshire years in advance, “testing the waters.” As the primary elections near, the campaigns and their Super PAC supporters pour millions of dollars into organizing and advertising in these two states, setting the tone for the entire national election.
By 1996, New Hampshire was the last holdout against designating an official holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., ten years after it first went into effect in the majority of states. It also had just one statewide newspaper, the Manchester Union-Leader (now called the New Hampshire Union Leader). It was considered one of the most conservative papers in the country, thanks to the vicious editorials penned by its owner and publisher, William Loeb III. Loeb had long railed against the civil rights movement, and against King in particular. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, prompted a flurry of invective from Loeb, splashed across his signed editorials on the paper’s front page. “Dr. King was a brave man, a determined man, but also—in our carefully considered opinion—a clever demagogue,” Loeb declared just two weeks after King’s death, adding that he was “sick and tired of sentimental slop” about King. Loeb was the racist before whom every Republican presidential hopeful would prostrate himself in pursuit of his coveted endorsement.
Loeb died in 1981, as the fight for a day honoring King was beginning in New Hampshire. His widow, Nackey Scripps Loeb, continued his policy at the paper, inveighing against adoption of the holiday. The Manchester Union-Leader offered this odd rationale: King shouldn’t be honored, its reasoning went, because he was opposed to the war in Vietnam, and thus unpatriotic. This rhetorical contortion failed to mask the publisher’s racism, which was only amplified when, on Monday, January 15, 1996 (that year’s federally recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day), a racist group from Mississippi rallied at the New Hampshire state capitol, thanking the state for its stalwart stand against MLK Day.
The Manchester Union-Leader endorsed Republican candidate Patrick Buchanan that year, helping to propel him to victory in the critical New Hampshire primary. Buchanan had never held elective office, but he’d worked as an advisor in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and was an outspoken pundit on the far right of American politics, with regular appearances on PBS, CNN, and his own syndicated radio show. He was a principal architect of the “southern strategy,” which he’d laid out in a 1971 memo to President Nixon, whereby the Republican Party captured white Democratic voters in the South by appealing to their racism. In a 1993 column, Buchanan wrote, “How long is this endless groveling before every cry of ‘racism’ going to continue before the whole country collectively throws up?”1
Buchanan’s inflammatory rhetoric served him well when campaigning in New Hampshire. He pledged, “I promise you that I will tear out this whole diversity program root and branch: Affirmative Action, discrimination, and all racial set asides, they will all be gone.”2
Among our guests on that first episode of Democracy Now! was Reverend Bertha Perkins, pastor at the New Fellowship Baptist Church and a board member of Southern New Hampshire Outreach for Black Unity, who explained, “When you talk about racism in New Hampshire, they have a very unique way of doing it. And they do it by—basically, just excluding us, a denial that we exist.”
The state’s position on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and the Manchester Union-Leader’s disingenuous opposition to it, though, affords an opportunity to revisit that remarkable antiwar speech that King gave on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before he was assassinated. That landmark speech clearly marks the moment that King publicly embraced the antiwar movement, and eloquently expresses the importance of coalition building, of organizing across issues, of uniting disparate sectors. This type of organizing has become standard in recent years. Back then it was groundbreaking.
The “Beyond Vietnam” speech clearly struck a chord with William Loeb. Shortly after King’s death, Loeb denigrated his memory: “King charged in a vicious address, sponsored by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, that American GIs were killing innocent civilians,” Loeb wrote, referencing the speech directly. In “Beyond Vietnam,” King detailed the history of how the US role escalated in Vietnam. Then he linked the expense of the war to poverty at home, saying, “A few years ago, there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor—both black and white—through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
Over three thousand people had gathered to hear King speak that day, in the sanctuary of the Riverside Church in New York City. In his speech, King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and committed to oppose “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” Borrowing a phrase from John F. Kennedy, he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” King’s speech advanced the antiwar movement to a new level. Almost a year later, feeling the pressure from that movement, President Lyndon Johnson would announce his decision not to seek a second term—four days before King’s assassination.
The mainstream backlash against King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was immediate. Life magazine, in an editorial in its April 21 issue, accused King of “betraying the cause for which he worked so long,” adding that “much of his speech was a demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The establishment editorial page of the Washington Post opined, “Dr. King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies . . . He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.” Even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) weighed in. Its sixty-member board unanimously approved a statement that read in part, “to attempt to merge the civil rights movement with the peace movement . . . is, in our judgment, a serious tactical mistake.”
From King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, jump ahead to the next African American leader to win it: Barack Obama. The first-term senator from Illinois ran for president as the antiwar candidate, first in the Democratic primaries against Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. She refused to admit that her 2002 vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, giving Obama a vital edge throughout the primaries. Then Obama, maintaining his antiwar position, ran in the general election against Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and POW, and won. Nine months into his administration, Obama was named the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Reuters reported that the news “was greeted with gasps from the audience at the announcement ceremony in Oslo.” Obama had no major foreign policy accomplishments at that time, and even he admitted, “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize.” Many accepted that the award for Obama was simply the Nobel committee’s tacit repudiation of President George W. Bush and his administration.
On December 10, 2009, Obama went to Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Prize. This was just over a week after he announced a troop surge in Afghanistan. In his thirty-six-minute acceptance speech, he invoked Martin Luther King’s name six times. “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence,” Obama said. Unlike King, though, Obama then made the case for war: “I am the commander in chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars . . . the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.” Obama went on to defend militarism: “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” He added, “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
In an indirect reference to King, President Obama said, “Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.” He was paraphrasing King, who said in his last speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?,” on August 16, 1967, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
A Washington Post headline in late 2015 read, “After Vowing to End Two Wars, Obama May Leave Three Behind,” pointing to his about-face on sending ground troops into Syria to fight against the so-called Islamic State, along with the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to these other conflicts where US forces play a role, often clandestinely, in Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, central African nations such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Colombia.
DRONES, DEATH, AND DEMONSTRATIONS
The aspect of Obama’s wars that perhaps most distinguishes him from his predecessors is his unprecedented reliance on drones. In a remarkable series of articles published by the Intercept, the online news organization founded by Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald, Scahill wrote, “From his first days as commander in chief, the drone has been President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice, used by the military and the CIA to hunt down and kill.” Scahill and colleagues obtained a trove of leaked secret documents detailing the Obama administration’s assassination and targeted killing program. Intercept journalist Ryan Devereaux reported on a US military campaign in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountain range, from 2011 to 2013, called Operation Haymaker. Devereaux wrote, “The documents show that during a five-month stretch of the campaign, nearly nine out of 10 people who died in airstrikes were not the Americans’ direct targets.” Another analyst he interviewed found that, despite government assurances that drone strikes afford precise targeting, they were “10 times more likely to kill civilians than conventional aircraft.”
Years before cofounding the Intercept, Jeremy Scahill was a long-time producer and correspondent for Democracy Now! and Ryan Deveraux was a Democracy Now! fellow. The Intercept’s groundbreaking reporting adds to the work of others, like the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. BIJ carefully amasses data on drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and recently began gathering data in Afghanistan. Drawing from information “reported by US administration and intelligence officials, credible media, academics, and other sources,” BIJ has documented more than seven hundred strikes in these regions, starting from 2002 in Yemen, 2004 in Pakistan, 2007 in Somalia, and 2015 in Afghanistan. Between 3,600 and 5,800 people have been killed, most, according to BIJ, only “suspected” militants. At least 532 were civilians, including children, although the upper range of their estimate is likely closer to the truth, with 1,174 civilians killed.
Juxtapose these casualty figures with Obama’s stated policy on drones, which he delivered in a speech at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013, as Operation Haymaker was being waged: “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.”
Behind the statistics are real people: children, families, thousands of them. On October 24, 2012, for example, the CIA launched a drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan. One person was confirmed killed. Between six and nine were injured. Killed: Mamana Bibi, a sixty-seven-year-old grandmother who was picking okra. Among the wounded: Bibi’s grandson, twelve-year-old Zubair Rehman, and his eight-year-old sister, Nabila. After multiple surgeries, Zubair and Nabila would come to the United States a year later, with their father, Rafiq, a schoolteacher, to testify before Congress. Their lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, was denied a visa to enter the United States. Akbar represents many drone strike victims in lawsuits against the United States and speaks fluent English. He would have helped this family navigate their way into the heart of the very nation that bombed them. No doubt, it was thought that denying Akbar a visa would discourage the family from coming as well. But they would not be deterred. They testified before Congress and then came to our studios in New York.
Rafiq Rehman told us, through an interpreter, “I had gone to Miranshah to buy some things from the bazaar. And so, then, when I returned, I noticed that in the graveyard on the outskirts of our village, they were preparing for a burial. I asked some little children who they were preparing the burial for. And they said, ‘Latif Rehman’s mother.’ And that’s my older brother. So I knew at that point that my mother had been killed by an American drone.”
Nabila recalled that the attack came just before Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. “I was outside with my grandmother, and she was teaching me how to tell the difference between okra that was ripe and not ripe. We were going to prepare it for our Eid dinner the next day. And then I had heard a dum-dum noise. Everything became dark. And I had seen two fireballs come down from the sky.” Zubair added, “I had seen a drone, and two missiles hit down where my grandmother was standing in front of me. And she was blown into pieces, and I was injured in my left leg.” He went on, “My grandmother, there was no one else like her. She was full of love. And when she passed away, all my friends told me that ‘You weren’t the only one who lost a grandmother; we all lost a grandmother,’ because everyone knew her in the village.”
The BIJ provided a detailed summary of the strike, backed up with documentation and firsthand accounts. Mamana Bibi, the grandmother, was a midwife. At least five of her grandchildren were injured. There were no “militants” in the area.
“What I’d like to say to the American people is: Please tell your government to end these drones,” Zubair told us. In his testimony before Congress, Zubair said, “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray. And for a short period of time, the mental tension and fear eases. When the skies brighten, though, the drones return, and so, too, does the fear.”
Months before the Rehman family spoke before Congress, another young man testified about trying to survive at the target end of US foreign policy. Farea al-Muslimi is a writer and activist from Yemen, currently working at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He appeared before the US Senate on April 23, 2013, just six days after his home village was struck by a drone. His testimony was unforgettable:
I am from Wessab, a remote mountain village in Yemen. Just six days ago, my village was struck by an American drone in an attack that terrified the region’s poor farmers. Wessab is my village, but America has helped me grow up and become what I am today. I come from a family that lives off the fruit, vegetables and livestock we raise in our farms. My father’s income rarely exceeded two hundred dollars. He learned to read late in his life, and my mother never did.
My life, however, has been different. I am who I am today because the US State Department supported my education. I spent a year living with an American family and attending an American high school. That was one of the best years of my life. I learned about American culture, managed the school basketball team and participated in trick-or-treat on Halloween. But the most exceptional experience was coming to know someone who ended up being like a father to me. He was a member of the US Air Force. Most of my year was spent with him and his family. He came to the mosque with me, and I went to church with him. And he became my best friend in America. I went to the US as an ambassador for Yemen, and I came back to Yemen as an ambassador of the US.
I could never have imagined that the same hand that changed my life and took it from miserable to promising would also drone my village. My understanding is that a man named Hamid al-Radmi was the target of a drone strike. Many people in Wessab know al-Radmi, and the Yemeni government could easily have found and arrested him. Al-Radmi was well known to government officials, and even local government could have captured him if the US had told them to do so.
At best, what Wessab’s villagers knew of the US was based on my stories about my wonderful experiences here. The friendships and values I experienced and described to the villagers helped them understand the America that I know and that I love. Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab.
This is not an isolated incident. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.
Farea al-Muslimi himself had a direct encounter with drones. He was visiting a Yemeni village when he heard a loud buzz overhead. Residents told him it was a drone. He recounted, “I felt helpless. It was the first time that I had truly feared for my life or for an American friend’s life in Yemen. I couldn’t help but think that the drone operator just might be my American friend with whom I had the warmest and deepest relationship. I was torn between this great country that I love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP [Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula] militants.”
Sadly, most US senators on the committee didn’t even bother to show up for Farea al-Muslimi’s testimony. As they shape US foreign policy, it would be instructive for them to hear just ten seconds of what this young man had to say: “What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.” On Democracy Now!, we broadcast Farea al-Muslimi’s testimony in its entirety.
Antiwar activists have been organizing to stop this new form of remote-controlled killing. One of the most prominent groups challenging Obama’s drone program is Codepink. Founded in 2002, Codepink was satirically named after the Bush administration’s color-coded “terror alert” rating, which left New York City and other high-profile locations under a perpetual “Code Orange” level of enhanced security. The government has since dropped the color scheme, but Codepink persists. The group describes itself as “a women-led grassroots organization working to end US wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect tax dollars into health care, education, green jobs, and other life-affirming programs.” It was cofounded by Medea Benjamin, activist and author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. Dressed in pink, she and her sister activists are regular fixtures at congressional hearings, directly challenging those in power by interrupting them from the audience. These actions are often captured on C-Span, the cable television channel that televises Congress.
On the last weekend in April 2012, Benjamin and Codepink hosted the International Drone Summit in Washington, DC, to organize effective opposition to drone warfare. The next day, Monday, April 30, John Brennan, a top national security advisor to President Obama—who would later become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency—spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He made the first official public admission about the targeted killing program: “[T]he United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific Al Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones. And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.”
As usual, Benjamin was there. She spoke out, declaring, “How many people are you willing to sacrifice? Why are you lying to the American people and not saying how many innocents have been killed? I speak out on behalf of Tariq Aziz, a sixteen-year-old in Pakistan, who was killed because he wanted to document the drone strikes. I speak out on behalf of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a sixteen-year-old born in Denver, killed in Yemen, just because his father was someone we don’t like. I speak out on behalf of the Constitution, on behalf of the rule of law. I love the rule of law. I love my country. You are making us less safe by killing so many innocent people.”
The two victims she mentioned were both sixteen-year-old boys. Tariq Aziz, from Pakistan, had volunteered to learn photography to begin documenting drone strikes near his home. He attended an antidrone conference in Islamabad, and participated in a news conference where he and others decried the practice of drone strikes. On October 31, 2012, just seventy-two hours after returning home to his rural community to begin the work of documenting the attacks, Aziz himself was killed in a US drone strike, along with his twelve-year-old cousin.
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a US citizen who was living with his grandfather in Sana’a, Yemen’s largest city. His father, Anwar al-Awlaki, had been a respected Muslim scholar and cleric in the United States, with dual Yemeni-American citizenship. In the wake of 9/11, Anwar al-Awlaki frequently appeared in the media, as he eloquently explained Islam while also extolling American freedoms. He even lectured at the Pentagon. But he became radicalized, in part due to increasing FBI and police harassment of the Muslim community in the United States, and the killing of Muslims in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. He returned to Yemen, bringing his family to join him. From Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki preached jihad against America and became a key target of the US government. He fled the city to avoid capture. In 2011 his son Abdulrahman decided to go out on his own to find his father. While he searched, his father was killed in a drone strike. Unaware of his father’s death, he continued searching. Two weeks later he too was killed in a drone strike, along with his cousin and at least five other civilians, while sitting at an outdoor café. The US government would never admit publicly that it killed the young US citizen in a drone strike, let alone why.
In June 2013, I had a chance to interview Abdulrahman’s grandfather, Nasser al-Awlaki, from Yemen. The former Fulbright scholar and Yemeni government official had desperately sued to block the targeted killing of his son Anwar al-Awlaki before the Obama administration succeeded in assassinating him, but the US courts offered no protection. As for his grandson, he told me, “Abdulrahman did nothing against the United States. He’s only sixteen years old, and he is an American citizen. He was born in America. And he was killed by his own government. . . . What we are asking for is just that we know exactly why Abdulrahman was killed.”
In May 2013, President Obama delivered a speech at the National Defense University that was billed as an announcement of a major shift in drone policy. Medea Benjamin was again there. As Obama spoke, Benjamin’s voice could be heard from the audience. After engaging the president on why he hadn’t closed the Guantánamo Bay prison, she shouted:
MEDEA BENJAMIN: How about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, sixteen-year-old American citizen—
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When we—
MEDEA BENJAMIN:—killed [inaudible]
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We went—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Is that the way we treat a sixteen-year-old American?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He went on to—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Why was he killed?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We went on—
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Can you tell us why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed? Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re addressing that, ma’am.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home. I love my country. I love the rule of law. Drones are making us less safe. And keeping people in indefinite detention in Guantánamo is making us less safe. Abide by the rule of law. You’re a constitutional lawyer.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I think that the—and I’m going off script, as you might expect, here. The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.
The next day, Medea Benjamin was our guest on Democracy Now! to talk about why she repeatedly interrupted Obama’s address. “I was very disappointed. He said that his policy is to capture, not kill. That’s just not true. I know personally of many incidents where it would have been very easy to capture people, like the sixteen-year-old Tariq Aziz in Pakistan, who was in Islamabad at a well-known hotel, but instead was killed by a drone strike two days later,” Benjamin said. “I think the president is really justifying the use of drones, which will continue to happen under his administration and be passed on to the next.”
Benjamin told me that President Obama “said that I wasn’t listening to him. I was hanging on every single word. I really expected to hear some major policy changes, and I didn’t know whether I was going to speak up or not. If he had said something like, ‘To show my commitment to Guantánamo, next week we will start releasing those prisoners who have been cleared,’ or if he had said, ‘We’re taking drones out of the hands of the CIA immediately,’ or, ‘We’re going to immediately say that signature strikes, where people are killed on the basis of suspicious behavior, will no longer be allowed’—if he had said anything like that, I wouldn’t have spoken up.”
I then asked her why she objected to the New York Times describing her as a “heckler.” “I think a heckler is a very negative term, and I think it’s a positive thing when people find the courage to speak up to leaders who are not leading. And I didn’t do what I did to embarrass the president. I did it because I feel that he needs to be pushed more, that it has been over four years now of policies that have been killing innocent people with drones. It has been now over eleven years that innocent people are still being held in Guantánamo and now being force-fed. These are crisis situations, and it requires more from us as citizens.”
BODY OF WAR
On May 1, 2003, President Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, dressed in a military flight suit that was cinched tightly around his crotch. The war was over, he boasted.
Only, it wasn’t. Eleven months later, on April 4, 2004, Tomas Young was just five days into his first deployment to Iraq when he was struck by a sniper’s bullet in Baghdad’s Sadr City. The single shot paralyzed him from the chest down.
Tomas Young’s remarkable story was told poignantly in a feature-length documentary, Body of War, directed by legendary TV talk-show host Phil Donahue and filmmaker Ellen Spiro. In the film, Tomas talks about the day he was injured:
“I only managed to spend maybe five days in Iraq until I got picked to go on my first mission. There were twenty-five of us crammed into the back of a two-and-a-half-ton truck with no covering on top or armor on the sides. For the Iraqis on the top of the roof, it just looked like, you know, ducks in a barrel. They didn’t even have to aim.”
This was just eleven days after President Bush had been yukking it up before hundreds of journalists and members of the Beltway elite at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington, DC. He showed photos of himself in the Oval Office, down on all fours, looking for WMDs behind curtains and under his desk. “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” Bush joked. It was incomprehensible that the pretext used to send thousands of young men and women to their deaths, for a war that cost, by some estimates, upwards of a million people their lives, had become a punch line.
“Nope, no weapons over there . . . maybe under here,” he said. Many in the press corps guffawed.
The film Body of War documents Tomas Young’s struggle, coping with paralysis and life in a wheelchair, its impact on his psyche, his wrecked marriage, his family, and his political development from military enlistee into a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. IVAW held its inaugural press conference at the Boston Public Library in the summer of 2004, during the annual convention of another, older antiwar veterans group, Veterans for Peace (VFP). IVAW formed to give voice and structure to the widespread opposition to the Iraq invasion and occupation that existed within the ranks of the US military and its new, growing population of young veterans. Democracy Now! was at that first press conference and has followed IVAW’s work ever since.
Soldiers, sailors, marines, Coast Guard, the National Guard: we have covered the torrent of GI resistance that was sweeping all the US services, yet went almost entirely unreported. Soldiers were refusing to deploy or to redeploy, were filing applications for conscientious objector status (which were all too often rejected), active duty service members were fleeing to Canada, and many soldiers were going AWOL, desperate to avoid the carnage and inhumanity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From these many, IVAW formed.
It was appropriate that the group publicly launched at the Veterans for Peace convention. That group’s members today are predominantly veterans of the Vietnam War. They welcomed their new brothers and sisters. VFP was formed in the 1980s and has included veterans of all the US wars and conflicts from before World War II on. Among its members have been veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Americans who went to Spain to defend the democratically elected government against the forces of the fascist general Franco, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39. The VFP chapter in Madison, Wisconsin, is named after one of those Lincoln “Brigadistas,” Clarence Kailin, who organized for social justice from his twenties, when he went to fight in Spain, until he died at age ninety-five in 2009. The Madison VFP chapter states on its website, “It is our fervent wish that we have no more wars from which we add to our membership.”
Phil Donahue was no stranger to covering antiwar views. He had been producing and hosting a daily, prime-time news program on MSNBC. In early 2003, Donahue’s program was MSNBC’s top-rated show. Then, just weeks before the March 19, 2003, invasion of Iraq, his show was abruptly canceled. Shortly afterward, a leaked internal memo from NBC said Donahue presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush, and skeptical of the administration’s motives . . . at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
I was invited to appear on MSNBC for the cable channel’s tenth anniversary. It was the last day of July 2006, and MSNBC host Chris Matthews was broadcasting outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. As we came back from a commercial break, Matthews pointed up to the top of NBC’s headquarters, called the Top of the Rock, and said he would be joining the network executives there shortly to celebrate. I responded, “I want to congratulate you, Chris, on ten years of MSNBC. But I wish standing with you was Phil Donahue. He shouldn’t have been fired for expressing an antiwar point of view on the eve of the invasion.”
Matthews replied, “I don’t know what the reasons were, but I doubt it was that.”
But the leaked NBC memo was clear: Donahue was fired because he brought antiwar voices to prime-time TV. At the time of his program’s cancellation, back in 2003, a majority of Americans supported both more time for weapons inspections in Iraq and more time for diplomacy to solve the crisis.
So Phil Donahue turned his media talents to telling the story of a remarkable patriot, Tomas Young.
I first met Tomas Young in the summer of 2005. He was with the grieving mother-turned-peace-activist Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey, the protest encampment in Crawford, Texas, not far from the ranch of President George W. Bush. Sheehan named the encampment after her dead son, Casey, who was killed on April 4, 2004, the same day that Tomas was shot, both in Sadr City.
Bush took extended vacations at his “ranch,” and a servile press corps followed dutifully, broadcasting images of him cutting brush and chopping wood. At the start of his 2005 vacation, Bush delivered a speech to the annual convention of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy writes that at these ALEC meetings, “corporate lobbyists and state legislators vote as equals on ‘model bills’ to change our rights that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line at public expense. . . . Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses—without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills.” ALEC is the source of many state laws that restrict gun control, limit a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, and roll back environmental, workplace safety, and any number of other sensible regulations.
In his speech at the ALEC meeting, Bush declared, “Our men and women who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and in this war on terror have died in a noble cause, in a selfless cause.”
Cindy Sheehan was outraged. She was slated to give the keynote address several days later at a different conference in Dallas: the 2005 annual convention of Veterans for Peace. After the convention ended, she drove to Crawford to ask President Bush directly: “For what noble cause did my son die?” A dozen or so Veterans for Peace accompanied her, setting up “Camp Casey” outside the entrance to the Bush ranch.
The protests grew, attracting international attention, as Bush’s vacation continued. Democracy Now! broadcast live from the site, interviewing Sheehan and others who had lost loved ones in Iraq, as well as some who had loved ones still deployed there. We interviewed organizers, activists, elected representatives, members of the clergy, commissioned officers, a senior diplomat, an FBI whistleblower, and others. We also interviewed Tomas Young.
The film Body of War premiered in the spring of 2008. A grim milestone was marked at that time, as the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq had just surpassed four thousand. Typically unmentioned alongside the count of US war dead are the tens of thousands of wounded, to say nothing of the Iraqi dead. The Pentagon doesn’t tout the number of Americans injured, but the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count project (www.icasualties.org
) had reported 32,223 US service-members wounded between the March 2003 invasion and the troop pullout in November 2011.
In an interview on ABC News at the time, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked about the four thousand soldiers killed. “The president carries the biggest burden, obviously,” he said. “He’s the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans, but we are fortunate to have a group of men and women, an all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm’s way for the rest of us.”
Just after the film premiered, I interviewed Tomas Young from his home in Kansas City, Missouri. I asked him what he thought about the vice president’s comments. Tomas replied, “From one of those soldiers who volunteered to go to Afghanistan after September 11, which was where the evidence said we needed to go, to [Cheney], the master of the college deferment in Vietnam: many of us volunteered with patriotic feelings in our heart, only to see them subverted and bastardized by the administration and sent into the wrong country.”
In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Young meets Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator with the most votes cast in Senate history (more than eighteen thousand). Byrd said his “no” vote on the Iraq War resolution was the most important of his life. Young helped him read the names of the twenty-three senators who voted against the resolution. Byrd, who died in 2010 at age ninety-two, still representing West Virginia, reflected: “The immortal twenty-three. Our founders would be so proud.” Turning to Young, he said, “Thank you for your service. Man, you’ve made a great sacrifice. You served your country well.”
Young replied, “As have you, sir.”
At about the same time as the film’s premiere, IVAW held a remarkable event just outside Washington, DC, called “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan—Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupation.” Military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who opposed the ongoing occupations spoke candidly about their experiences, describing in brutal detail the violence, potential war crimes, the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the epidemic of suicide.
The weekend of testimonials was based on a similar event in 1971, the original Winter Soldier hearings, held by antiwar veterans of the Vietnam War. The name “Winter Soldier,” coined by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), was inspired by Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis, a series of essays Paine wrote during the American Revolution. Paine opened the first in the series, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” The phrase “Winter Soldier” was explained during testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations by a young US Navy lieutenant named John Kerry, who would later become a US senator from Massachusetts and then secretary of state. Kerry spoke about a report produced by VVAW that detailed alleged war crimes witnessed by, or in many cases perpetrated by, the soldiers themselves. He said, “We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it—not reds and not redcoats, but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it—that we have to speak out.”
His testimony would be best remembered for two questions he posed before the Senate committee: “[H]ow do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Several months after the release of Body of War, a blood clot lodged in Tomas’s arm, causing severe complications. He lost most of the use of his arms, and suffered diminished ability to speak. He never lost his deep commitment to peace or his hope that those responsible for the war would be held accountable.
In February 2013, appearing via video stream before an audience of Body of War in Litchfield, Connecticut, he shocked the crowd by telling them that he intended to end his own life. The thirty-three-year-old veteran said he would simply stop eating.
At the screening, Tomas was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He replied, “That I fought as hard as I could to keep young men and women away from military service. I fought as hard as I could to keep another me from coming back from Iraq. That is what I want to be remembered for.”
Soon after announcing his intent to commit suicide, Tomas Young released “The Last Letter: A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from a Dying Veteran.” We sent a TV satellite truck to his house in Kansas City. Tomas struggled to sit upright, to face the camera for our broadcast, then he read his letter aloud: “You may evade justice, but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.”
I asked Young if anything would change his mind about his decision to end his life. “No,” he said, adding that if he were not in such intense, constant pain, he would not be taking this course. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he told me.
Phil Donahue stayed in touch with Young after making Body of War. Donahue told me that making the film was a “spiritual experience . . . a chapter of our lives.” He said he understood Young’s decision: “[H]e struggles now to speak, although you can understand him. He has difficulty grasping silverware, his opposable thumbs are at a serious deficit . . . so he has to be fed. When he and his [second] wife, Claudia, have gone out to dinner, she would look for a corner of the restaurant, so when she fed him, they wouldn’t be stared at. He now has pressure sores, with exposed bone. He recently had a colostomy, so he has a bag on the side of his body. He is fed through a tube, and every other commercial he sees on television is about food. It is beyond awful what Tomas has sustained. He now lies immobile, in a dark bedroom in Kansas City, dutifully cared for by his wife, Claudia, who has been with him for five years.
“Throughout this whole ordeal, I have been with him often enough to know, he wanted to live,” said Donahue. “That is what makes it extra sad. He wanted to live. He has fought back against every setback, from the inadequate treatment at the Veterans Administration, to his own PTSD. Now the situation is so dire that no one who is close to him can claim to not understand: He has given up.
“When I look down on this young man,” Donahue reflected, “all I can think of is President Bush saying, ‘Bring ’em on.’ There is almost no remorse.”
Claudia told us that Tomas found some relief from marijuana, which is illegal in Kansas and Missouri. So they moved to Oregon, where medical marijuana is legal. Unfortunately, Claudia felt the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Portland did not support his use of marijuana, and punitively reduced his prescription pain medications in response. Seeking a safe, compassionate place, they moved to Seattle, another place with legal medical (and now, recreational) marijuana. Tomas and Claudia felt the VA dragged its heels, leaving them to ration his pain pills.
In his open letter to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Tomas concluded “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on Earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.”
Just before Veterans Day 2014, Young died at home in Seattle, with his wife by his side. He was just one soldier, one veteran, out of the more than 2.3 million deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. The Iraq Coalition Casualty Count project maintains a detailed online database of troop fatalities for both the Iraq and Afghan wars. As of January 2016, there had been 6,873 US soldiers killed. This doesn’t count several thousand more from the coalition partner nations, and hundreds more private military contractors. Based on the Pentagon’s own numbers, from 2001 through June 2015, there were over 320,000 traumatic brain injuries in the military. Actual rates could be twice as high as that. The occurrence of PTSD is epidemic among veterans, both those from the Vietnam era and from the recent wars.
HONOR THE DEAD, HEAL THE WOUNDED, STOP THE WARS
IVAW organized a march in Chicago on May 20, 2012, to confront a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, where close to thirty heads of state were meeting. Hundreds of veterans in camouflage uniforms marched through the streets, to the high fences that had been erected to protect the NATO leaders. One by one, fifty of these antiwar veterans ascended a simple stage, declared their opposition to the wars, and hurled their combat medals over the fence. Like Winter Soldier, this protest was also inspired by an earlier protest. Vietnam veterans, including John Kerry, stood in front of the Nixon White House in 1971 and threw their medals over the fence as a statement against war.
In the midst of the NATO protests in Chicago, two filmmakers, Haskell Wexler and James Foley, had a chance encounter. Wexler was there documenting the protests, at the age of ninety. He made scores of films, won an Emmy and two Oscars. His most iconic film was Medium Cool, released in 1969, which included footage from the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Foley volunteered to help Wexler document the protests for the film that Wexler later released, Four Days in Chicago. The Chicago protest was in late May 2012. Foley had just returned from war reporting in Syria.
By August, James Foley was back in Syria reporting on the civil war for GlobalPost. He went missing on November 22 and was held captive by ISIS for two years. Sometime in mid-August 2014, ISIS beheaded him, then released a gruesome video of the execution.
Wexler’s exchange with Foley was captured on camera:
HASKELL WEXLER: What countries recently have you been filming, taping?
JAMES FOLEY: Libya, Syria. I was in Afghanistan with US troops in 2010. And I’m really interested in the young guys, the ones that are just coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, those guys’ perspectives, you know, because that has a huge impact, you know. And if they’re giving their medals back, that harkens back to the Winter Soldiers, essentially in Vietnam and Kerry and what those guys did, right? So, I’m really interested in that young mentality. I’ve seen young vets that are in Occupy in DC and New York, and kind of gravitated toward them a little bit, because . . . they have the most authentic voice to criticize NATO right now. They were inside the beast.
In 2016, I interviewed James Foley’s parents and several of his colleagues, shortly after the premiere of a documentary about his life, Jim: The James Foley Story. I asked his mother, Diane Foley, if it was fair to say that Jim covered war to end war.
“I think that’s very true,” she said. “He wanted to understand the issues, and certainly particularly the issues of the civilians and the children. And he really felt our world, the Western world, really needed to know those stories.”
The corporate media rarely told that side of the James Foley story. The documentary, filmed by James Foley’s childhood friend Brian Oakes, captured his dedication and commitment to peace.
Freelance journalist Clare Gillis, who worked with Foley in Syria and in Libya before that, told me about a 2014 Wall Street Journal/ NBC poll that showed that 94 percent of Americans knew about the beheadings of American journalists by ISIS—higher than any other news event the poll has measured in the past five years. “It would have been very disturbing to him . . . he never wanted his face to be anywhere near what he went there for. He went there to show the suffering of the Syrian people. He devoted, quite literally, his life to doing that.”
FIGHTING FOR PEACE IN THE MIDST OF WAR
There is nothing more dangerous than to enter a war zone, unarmed, to advocate for peace. Sami Rasouli did just that. He grew up in An Najaf, Iraq, considered one of Shia Islam’s holiest cities. After finishing his degree in the 1970s, he taught math in the United Arab Emirates and then moved to Germany, where he met his Palestinian wife. In 1985 they traveled to the United States, seeking a cure for their eldest child’s deafness. The treatment failed, but Rasouli and his family decided to settle in Minneapolis. By 1990, he had opened a restaurant, Sinbad’s, which became one of the most popular spots in town. He was featured on the cover of Minneapolis magazine. Then, in November 2003 he made the journey to his home city, his first time back in twenty-seven years. There he witnessed firsthand the catastrophe of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
“I was really destroyed by seeing the amount of the destruction and devastated country after the war and also the effects of the sanctions the last twelve years,” he told me after returning from his trip. He recounted the killings, the kidnappings.
The next year he made the difficult decision to sell his restaurant, leave his community in Minneapolis, pack up, and head home to Iraq for good. Rasouli founded Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT), an organization whose mission, he said, is to “bring Iraqis together in peace to work for the good of the country, and encourage Iraqi people to be self-sufficient in the face of the violence across the country.”
I asked him how he could move into a war zone, and what he would actually do in Iraq. He replied humbly, “I would do anything, anything. Probably I will start cleaning the streets where my sister lives.” He did that, and then joined with allied Christian Peacemaker Teams to clean up Fallujah. The city had been devastated twice by the US military in 2004: the United States not only bombed and occupied, but dropped the napalm-like chemical weapon white phosphorous. “We went knocking [on] the doors of the residents to [take] away refuse and waste,” he said. “And the people there were touched. They actually haven’t seen any garbage collectors for the previous two years, since the war started. So they invited us to pray with them . . . We prayed in the Al Furqan Mosque in the area of Saba Nissan. There were close to two thousand worshippers, where the sheikh changed his sermon to [one of] unity. People learned about us, that we were among them, Sunni and Shiites worshipping together, same God, having the same holy book, the Quran.”
Soon the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to make Rasouli’s home city, Najaf, a sister city, and a Minnesota partner organization formed to foster person-to-person contact between the two distant cities that were united by one courageous activist. He consulted on the creation of the new Iraqi constitution and then worked to overcome an outbreak of cholera.
Over the years, in our interviews with him, Rasouli has called consistently for the United States to leave Iraq, from 2007, in response to the so-called surge and its oft-touted success, all the way up to 2014, as ISIS made rapid strikes against the Iraqi national army and scored victory after victory. Rasouli told me, “I think the US should get out of the area. But what’s going on is controlled by the huge embassy in Baghdad, run by at least five thousand employees. They have nothing to do except monitor Iraq, advising the Iraqi government what to do, and also monitoring the area surrounded by Iraq. The five thousand, this is [in addition to] the estimated ten thousand military forces who are stationed there to protect the interest of the embassy and the US. So, I think they should leave the area, not to intervene, end the war in Afghanistan, and pull out their forces, and let the Arabs and the countries of the area solve their problem. But it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take some time, but eventually they will figure out a way.
“My home is Mother Earth,” Rasouli told me. “Peace should prevail, wherever there is violence—not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, but beyond that, and we keep continuing our efforts.”
A FORCE MORE POWERFUL THAN WAR
What if war were not an option? What if people had to resolve conflicts nonviolently?
This is a central question that we pursue in our news reporting on Democracy Now! From individuals taking principled action, to efforts of small community groups that meet in churches, mosques, union halls, and campuses, to national coalitions, the peace movement is a broad mosaic. The mainstream, corporate media typically ignores it. Despite this, the daily work of building organizations, researching issues, and discussing and debating them to determine positions and strategies, writing to elected officials, maintaining vigils and organizing marches—all the hard work of building grassroots power—happens every day in this country. Unfortunately, many in the media don’t consider this collective effort to be very newsworthy.
But if you consider the key movements on which US history has hinged, they have always required mass mobilization; people coming together to demand change. The effort to stop the invasion of Iraq was one such movement.
Democracy Now! and a number of other independent media outlets covered the succession of lies that came out of the Bush-Cheney administration, interviewing dissenters and critics; people who challenged the dominant narrative that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. President George W. Bush said in a speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” The day after that major prowar address, we invited several guests on Democracy Now!: Cleveland’s Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who was leading the effort in the House to block the war; Jay Bookman, deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Sister Alice Gerdeman of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, which organized protests outside the Cincinnati Museum Center where Bush spoke.
In his speech, the president read a laundry list of threats he claimed were posed by Saddam Hussein, saying that “the Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons.” Hundreds gathered outside. Sister Alice told me, “The crowd outside had one message that I think we held in unison: no war.” Yet their presence never made it to the evening news.
Dennis Kucinich’s experience in his own congressional offices confirmed the results of research we conducted at Democracy Now!: namely, that the telephone calls flooding Congress against a military invasion of Iraq outpaced calls in support many times over. Polling the offices of fifty senators, we found that antiwar calls were coming in at a rate of a hundred to a thousand times those of prowar callers. Jay Bookman, one of the few editorialists from a major newspaper to critically question the drumbeat for war, told me, “There is clear evidence that this war was contemplated long before 9/11 . . . September 11 has become the excuse, the motivation. The administration, instead of trying to reassure America, is trying to scare the hell out of America.”
We went on to broadcast voices from a rally in New York’s Central Park that occurred on the same day Bush spoke in Cincinnati. Over twenty thousand people attended the rally, yet it didn’t register on the national news. There were strong antiwar currents in the country and around the world, for any news organization that was willing to look for them.
A couple of weeks later, on Saturday, October 26, 2002, Democracy Now! reported from a major antiwar protest in Washington, DC. The police told us that between 150,000 and 200,000 people attended. The next day, the New York Times reported that “fewer people had attended than organizers had hoped for . . . even though the sun came out.” NPR reported “fewer than 10,000” showed up.
We had to ask: Were the reporters even there?
It was clear to all of us who were actually there that the size of the crowd was significant. In addition to our broadcast, C-SPAN was carrying the protest live. Anyone watching from home could clearly see the masses of people. The Washington Post headline read, “Antiwar Protest Largest Since ’60s; Organizers Say 100,000 Turned Out.”
Democracy Now! producer Mike Burke noticed that the people quoted in the Times article had spoken at a press conference a few days earlier. So he tracked down each person quoted in the story. There was an MIT professor, a student from the University of North Carolina (UNC), and Eli Pariser with MoveOn.org.
Pariser confirmed that the Times reporter had interviewed him a few days earlier. The MIT professor said the same thing. The UNC student said, “She did interview me at the rally—on my cell phone. I asked her why she wasn’t here. She said she was working on another story.”
Three days later, the New York Times ran another story on the same protest. “The turnout startled even organizers, who had taken out permits for 20,000 marchers,” it read. “They expected 30 buses, and were surprised by about 650, coming from as far as Nebraska and Florida.” The article continued, “The demonstration on Saturday in Washington drew 100,000 by police estimates and 200,000 by organizers’.” An accompanying photo caption noted that the rally was “the biggest antiwar protest since the Vietnam War era.”
Who do you believe: the New York Times . . . or the New York Times?
Democracy Now! attempted to question the reporter and her editors at the Times about their coverage, but the Times declined to comment. Finally, after we reported on their misreporting, the reporter called us and confirmed that she had left the protest before it had even started. She had seen only the early crowds trickling in, not the actual demonstration. When she realized that the rally was much bigger, she called in a correction to her editors, but they didn’t change the numbers.
On October 30, NPR aired a correction: “We erroneously reported on All Things Considered that the size of the crowd was fewer than 10,000. While Park Service employees gave no official estimate, it is clear that the crowd was substantially larger than that. . . . We apologize for the error.”
Democracy Now! called the New York Times and asked why the newspaper of record hadn’t issued a correction. An editor told us that the paper hadn’t made a mistake. The difference, he said, was only a matter of emphasis.
WAR & PEACE PLANNING
As the war planning and the propaganda from the Bush White House accelerated, so too did the planning to stop it. Press accounts, when they did report on antiwar efforts, often compared them to similar events during the Vietnam War. But those accounts missed a very important point: the antiwar organizing in 2002 was happening before the invasion of Iraq had even started. This is one of the most significant achievements of the modern peace movement.
During the Vietnam era, there were some prescient activists who saw the buildup in Vietnam early, such as the twelve college students in New York City who burned their draft cards on May 12, 1964. The first teach-in against the war was held on March 25, 1965, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Faculty organizers there developed the “teach-in” tactic from their experiences with the sit-ins used in the civil rights movement. But the mass marches and organizing against the Vietnam War took years to build, intensifying only as the number of US casualties increased, and as the images of the war dead, on both sides, became daily fare in the newspapers and on evening news programs in the United States.
In 2002, the organizing began almost immediately after Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair held a press conference on September 7, clearly indicating they would try to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Coalitions formed quickly, harnessing the power of the internet and calling for a global day of protest on February 15, 2003. In the United States, United for Peace and Justice had formed to ensure that the first anniversary of 9/11 would not be exploited for nationalistic or war-making causes but rather commemorated “in the hopes of transforming that day into an occasion that promotes a more just and peaceful world.” The group became an organizing hub for the February mass mobilization. In the United Kingdom, the Stop the War Coalition formed just after 9/11, explicitly to challenge the so-called War on Terror. When it became clear that Prime Minister Tony Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with George Bush in planning for an invasion of Iraq, the coalition began working immediately in opposition. Stop the War’s work included, it wrote, “thousands of public meetings across the country, direct action in the run-up to UK wars—including walkouts from schools, colleges, and workplaces—two People’s Assemblies, international peace conferences, vigils, lobbies of Parliament, and antiwar cultural events.”
Among the members of Stop the War’s steering committee in 2003 was Jeremy Corbyn, a member of the British parliament. In 2015, twelve years after the invasion of Iraq, Corbyn would shock the British establishment with his election as leader of the Labour Party, making him the principal opposition leader to the conservative government and thus one of the most powerful figures in the UK. Also in 2015, Tony Blair, who was, at the time of the invasion in 2003, the UK Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, would make a critical admission in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:
FAREED ZAKARIA: When people look at the rise of ISIS, many people point to the invasion of Iraq as the principal cause. What do you say to that?
TONY BLAIR: I think there are elements of truth in that. . . . Of course, you can’t say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.
On Saturday, February 15, 2003, the global day of action began, first as dawn broke over the international date line in the Pacific. In Sydney, Australia, over six hundred thousand marched, with smaller protests around the country. There were marches in Auckland, New Zealand, and in Fiji, Japan, and Korea. In Malaysia, three thousand people violated an official ban and protested. Also violating a ban on protests were scientists and staffers at the United States’ McMurdo Station in Antarctica, which at the time was run by the defense contractor Raytheon Company. They had posted three separate group photos in the lead-up to the war, with people forming a peace sign. In one, after being prohibited from including any station buildings, vehicles, uniforms, or insignia in their photo, ten people disrobed and sent a nude protest photo, joining other nude actions around the globe under the heading “Baring Witness.” Computer technician Robbie Liben and other protest organizers were eventually fired for their actions.
The global day of action continued, with protests across India, Pakistan, and in Moscow. Thousands marched in Beirut, Lebanon; Amman, Jordan; Damascus, Syria; and Baghdad itself, the target of the intended “Shock and Awe” assault. Tens of thousands marched in South Africa, with separate events in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, among others. In Europe, the numbers swelled, with thousands in the Czech capital of Prague, as well as in Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine. Muslims and Christians joined together in protest in the Bosnia and Herzegovina city of Mostar, which was itself besieged by war just a decade earlier.
In Rome, three million people marched against war, setting a world record. Huge numbers continued to turn out across Western Europe. In Madrid, where conservative prime minister José María Aznar supported the war, an estimated two million people marched. Over one million people marched in London, breaking that city’s record for the largest march in its history.
In New York City, a federal judge had banned the planned march. Peace demonstrators sought to gather at the United Nations Plaza and then march to Central Park for a rally. US District Court Judge Barbara Jones apparently took the word of the New York City assistant police chief, who said he feared that the police department couldn’t provide sufficient security for a moving crowd of up to a hundred thousand people. Judge Jones ruled that the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest but does not ensure the right to march. She said the peace activists could accept the city’s counteroffer of a rally at the UN Plaza.
February 15, 2003, was a brutally cold morning in New York. The NYPD, Judge Jones, and the Republican billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg had done all they could to minimize the size and impact of the rally. Now the winter weather was doing its part. Yet, despite all the obstacles thrown in front of the organizers, hundreds of thousands of people turned out. Among them was antiapartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, legendary performer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, anti-prison activist and former Black Panther Angela Davis, and actors Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover, all of whom spoke from the stage.
Not satisfied with barring a march, the NYPD, out in full force in riot gear and supported by intimidating horse-mounted officers, erected barricades across the side streets needed to access First Avenue, Second Avenue, and Third Avenue, thus denying entry to the “stationary rally” to hundreds of thousands of people. We had a live TV broadcast position set up outdoors, behind the stage, with a satellite uplink truck beaming our coverage to the world. Pacifica Radio had ordered a special high-quality phone line from the phone company and had it installed on-site in order to provide live, broadcast-quality radio coverage of the rally. Before the first speaker began, two surly NYPD officers found the phone line, which Verizon had run from a nearby phone booth, and ripped it out of the ground. This was New York’s finest, in the media capital of the world, doing everything they could to ensure that voices for peace, against war, were silenced. Pacifica’s engineer managed to repair the line, and the rally went out globally over radio, TV, and the internet. Despite the official harassment, organizers estimate that between a half million and a million people turned out that cold winter’s day.
People rallied in cities across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and across Latin America. A French academic studied the turnout and estimated that between thirty million to thirty-six million people around the world rose up to oppose war, making it the largest organized mass event in human history.
Endless wars have now spawned the largest migration of human beings since World War II. Europe has been the first stop for this wave of humanity.
In December 2015, my Democracy Now! colleagues and I visited a massive, makeshift refugee camp called “The Jungle” on the outskirts of the northern French town of Calais. The camp grows daily, swelling with asylum-seekers fleeing war in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and beyond. Their countries of origin are a map of the targets of US bombing campaigns. More than six thousand people in this, France’s largest refugee camp, hope for a chance to make the last, dangerous leg of their journey through the nearby Channel Tunnel to England. Wind whips off the North Sea, blasting the shelters made of tarps, tents, plastic sheeting, and scrap lumber in this sprawling, ramshackle end of the line. The roads in the camp are muddy; the portable toilets are filthy. The charity health clinic had been closed since mid-November. The main entrance to the camp is below a freeway, with several police vans parked with lights flashing and armed officers stationed above.
Most who arrive here have endured arduous journeys of thousands of miles, hoping to cross to the United Kingdom. The Channel Tunnel offers asylum-seekers a way to make it to the UK without risking a dangerous crossing of the English Channel, by stowing away on either a high-speed passenger train or a freight train. Accessing either type of train involves significant risk, and accidental deaths occur almost weekly when people leap onto moving trains or stumble under truck tires.
A few days before Democracy Now! visited the camp, a Sudanese man named Joseph was killed when he was run over by a car on the highway. Camp residents were protesting that the police had not stopped the driver, holding signs reading “We are Humans, Not Dogs” and “Do survivors of war not have the right to live in peace?” We asked a young man named Majd from Damascus, Syria, why he fled his country: “I escaped from the war. I don’t want to die. This war is not my war.” We asked him who was attacking his country. He said: “Who? Everyone. Russia and America and Iran—everyone.”
Days before we met Majd, the British Parliament voted to attack Syria and began bombing immediately. In the few months prior, the British government built multiple layers of high, razor-wire-topped fences in Calais, sealing off the tunnel entrance and the rail line for miles before the tunnel, as well as the staging area where freight trucks line up to drive onto the rail cars that will carry them through the tunnel. Each truck is also subjected to an infrared scan to look for stowaways. Before the enhanced security, scores of asylum-seekers might get through the tunnel nightly. Now, it is almost impossible. The more the West bombs their countries, the more it shuts out those who flee its wars.
In the Afghan section of the refugee camp, Sidiq Husain Khil was eager to speak about the fourteen-year-old US war in Afghanistan—the longest war in US history. Like many, he did not want his face to be filmed. We asked him about the effects of US bombing and drone strikes on Afghanistan. He replied: “If they are killing one person or ten persons, one hundred of them are joining the group of Taliban. . . . The war is not the solution for finishing terrorism. They have to talk face-to-face.”
As we roamed the camp, pulling our coats tightly around us in the cold, we looked for a woman who would be willing to speak. We met Dur, an Afghan professor of English, who also did not want her face shown. She traveled more than three thousand miles with her four children, by car, bus, horse, foot, and boat. In almost perfect English, her twelve-year-old daughter described their unimaginable route: “First we go to Nimruz province of Afghanistan. Then we went to Pakistan. Then we walked to Saravan, Balochistan. Then Iranshahr, Kerman, Shiraz, Tehran, Kurdistan, and Turkey. Then we start walking in mountains. Then we went to Istanbul, Izmir. Then we arrived to the sea.” Dur hired a smuggler to take them in a leaky boat from Turkey to Greece. She told me, “When I saw that boat . . . I called all my children and I start to cry . . . I spent all my money to buy them death.” Miraculously, they survived. Whether they make it to their destination, Britain, is another question.
As we left the camp, a man named Najibullah raced up to us. An Afghan who worked with the US Marines as a translator, he applied for a special visa for Afghans who put themselves at risk by working for the United States. He said he was turned down because he hadn’t worked for the marines for a full year. “Working with the US government . . . just one day or a year . . . it doesn’t matter to the Taliban,” he told me. “As long as you work with them just one hour, you’re condemned to death.”
“Today, Joseph. Tomorrow, who?” read one of the many signs at the protest earlier that day. These refugees are the roadkill of war.
A few days after we left the camp, a painting appeared on the concrete wall of the underpass, where the protest had occurred. It was painted by the globally renowned street artist Banksy, whose identity has never been revealed. Banksy painted a life-size depiction of Steve Jobs, the visionary founder of Apple, with a bag slung over his shoulders. Banksy released a statement to accompany the painting of Jobs:
“We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7 billion a year in taxes—and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”
A NOBLE ENDEAVOR
Working for peace is among the most important and noble of human endeavors. Individuals might feel powerless when confronted with a nation intent on going to war, but history shows that movements matter; that small acts of defiance and dissent can ripple out and create change. Noam Chomsky is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus of linguistics, a field of science that he revolutionized. He is perhaps best known, though, as one of the world’s most prolific analysts of US foreign policy. He has authored over a hundred books and still, in his late eighties, is a tireless writer and speaker on issues of war and peace. In the early 1990s, Chomsky wrote an essay called “What You Can Do,” which reads in part,
One of the things [people in power] want is a passive, quiescent population. So one of the things that you can do to make life uncomfortable for them is not be passive and quiescent. There are lots of ways of doing that. Even just asking questions can have an important effect. Demonstrations, writing letters and voting can all be meaningful—it depends on the situation. But the main point is—it’s got to be sustained and organized. If you go to one demonstration and then go home, that’s something, but the people in power can live with that. What they can’t live with is sustained pressure that keeps building, organizations that keep doing things, people who keep learning lessons from the last time and doing it better the next time.
Covering social movements like those Chomsky was writing about, reporting on efforts to effect lasting change—the movements that make history—that is our daily labor at Democracy Now! The global protest on February 15, 2003, didn’t stop the invasion of Iraq. We can’t know for sure what impact it had, or continues to have, as the demands of those thirty million marchers continue to reverberate. Thousands of individuals and groups around the world continue to work for peace, each contributing a small share to what Martin Luther King Jr. called, in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, “the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”