Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Fig Leaf

I was actually against the war before the war. As a reservist attending Claremont McKenna College near LA, I attended the big day of student walkouts in February of 2003. There were speeches, a human peace sign, and a march through the middle of campus. I found myself surrounded by students and professors trying to relive the 60s. Their apparent ignorance was surpassed only by their lack of hygiene.

At our monthly drill in December of 2003 our Commanding Officer announced that the Marine Corps was seeking volunteers for the Third Civil Affairs Group. I jumped at the chance. I didn’t want to “miss the party.” I also believed at that time, along with most of America, that what we were doing in Iraq was cleaning up our mess. I thought it was responsible foreign policy, trying to do good by the Iraqi people.

I was activated two weeks before we were set to deploy. In between filling out forms and checking out gear, I got enough civil affairs training to learn that we would be working with the Iraqi people on local projects such as schools, clinics, mosques, and water projects. I was really excited about it. That was exactly what Bush was saying that we, as in Americans in Iraq, were doing there. I thought, “We are going to be leading the charge to rebuild Iraq.” (To Marines, every mission is a “charge.” Often times, Marines are tasked to lead the charge to clean the heads, or swab the decks, or stand around and smoke cigarettes.)

When I got to Iraq, it was a different story. We were six-man teams attached to battalions or regiments. And where we were in the Fallujah area, you couldn’t go anywhere without at least six humvees with machine guns. We often had to beg these infantry commanders to tag along on their convoys to accomplish our missions. We found ourselves constantly struggling to justify our existence. We even came up with a slogan: We care, so that you don’t have to.

Sure it was funny at the time, but in retrospect, it’s pretty messed up. Perhaps if the situation had been the other way around, namely that infantry units were attached to civil affairs teams, then the US military would have had some credibility with the Iraqi people when we told them that we were there to help them. But instead, we put the killers in charge. I’m not advocating a complete restructuring of the military here. Ours is the greatest on the earth, but it is designed to destroy other militaries. In the words of Jason Lemieux, “Hammers can’t fix computers.”

About halfway through my tour, I realized the futility of what we were doing in civil affairs and was forced to fall back on the old standard rationalization, “At least we’re keeping the fight off of American soil.” I was able to realize the fallacy of that soon after returning home. For every insurgent we kill today, there are two to kill tomorrow because we piss off so many people in the process.

The only way that I can describe the role of civil affairs in the occupation of Iraq is that it is a fig leaf. I was once praised for taking pictures of my team distributing humanitarian rations because they would be used in a propaganda magazine that would be distributed to Iraqis. I don’t believe it had much effect, (the Iraqi people know better) but it was clear that we were there more so that commanders could brag about all of the good we were doing rather than so that we could actually do any good.

We cared so that they didn’t have to. So that the infantry commanders didn’t have to. So that the joint chiefs didn’t have to. So that L. Paul Bremer (Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance until the “handover of power” on June 28th, 2004) didn’t have to. So that Donald Rumsfeld didn’t have to. So Dick Cheney didn’t have to, not that he ever pretended to. And so that least of all, President Bush didn’t have to while he gushed about making life better for the Iraqi people. I risked my life so that they could look good, and they still failed. We were a fig leaf.

This appeared in the first issue of the official IVAW newsletter, SIT-REP.

Berkeley without Hippies, a Convention with Hippies, and Exciting Stuff Coming Up

Last Wednesday, we held the first ever IVAW Truth in Recruiting Workshop at the Jazz School in Berkeley. Special thanks to IVAW members Jane Song for handling the logistics and to Kevin Turner for sharing his experiences with the Army and recruiters in his first public speaking event with IVAW. It was my first time hosting such a workshop, and as such, it was a sort of a trial run for the format that I have created. Despite low turnout, it was a resounding success. Everyone there was engaged and excited about the potential for Truth In Recruiting. Hopefully, the Bay Area Chapter (semi-defunct) will be reinvigorated as a result and host more workshops on their own.

This was the first in a series of workshops that I will be hosting, and hopefully many more IVAW chapters will also be hosting their own. The next one for me is this Friday in Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Chapter of Veterans For Peace (especially Ken Mayers) has been a great help in setting this up and promoting it.

This past weekend was the annual IVAW convention in St Louis. As it is traditionally, it was part of the Veterans For Peace annual convention. They are our parent organization, and as such, they take that mission to heart. They brought out their share of hippies, mainly as hangers on, but it was great to see the support that they showed us. It was there that I met Ken Murray, who was essential to making the Santa Fe workshop possible. I also got to be part of a lot of brainstorming and planning sessions that were immeasurably powerful. I even took the time to attend a “Warrior Writers” workshop, organized by the incredible Lovella Calica. So you can look forward to a little more of my creative side in the near future. (I can hear you cringing now!)

The main order of business for IVAW was to elect seven new members for our nine-man board of directors. There were fourteen candidates and in order of most votes received, the new members are: Camilo Mejia, Liam Madden, myself, Margaret Stevens, Phil Aliff, Jabar Magruder, and Jason Lemieux. We convened our first meeting that evening to select an executive committee of a Chairman, Co-Chair, Secretary, and Treasurer. By an incredible process of consensus and objectively evaluating each other without taking it to a vote, we selected Camilo Mejia as Chairman, myself as Co-Chair, Phil Aliff as Secretary, and Margaret Stevens as Treasurer. We were all incredibly excited about the strength of the new board. Personally, I am honored to be a part of it and feel that my selection is a great show of appreciation by the membership for the sacrifices I have made on behalf of IVAW since joining. I kept hearing, “You’re doing great work,” from many of the VFPers at the convention, and my reply was always, “We’re just getting started.”

Saturday night, we held a special screening of the documentary, "Meeting Resistance." It was incredibly powerful. Please check out their website. It is interesting to note that it was screened at Marine Corps Base Quantico. Sunday Morning was the "March to the Arch," followed by an afternoon packed with meetings until it was time to go to the airport. I will soon be organizing "Truckers Against the War." More to come.

Recently, I have been consumed with my preparations for National Truth in Recruiting Day and the ongoing IVAW TIR campaign. I was able to get a lot of people excited about it over the weekend and soon we should have a section of the IVAW website up and will be issuing a press release so we can start promoting it. I was also able to get a lot of folks committed for the September 15th week of action. At the rally in front of the capitol, IVAW will be leading the mass die-in with an honor guard that will be simulating a 21-gun salute before taps is played to start the die-in. Of course, it isn’t that smart to simulate anything with guns when surrounded by buildings guarded by snipers, so the seven men in the detail will be carrying the flags of various war profiteers (Halliburton, KBR, Blackwater, etc.) and will bang them on the ground to simulate rifle fire. If you can attend, please sign up at to wear cammies to represent one of the American fallen at the die-in.

In more fun news, I have been asked to be the guest of honor at August’s meeting of the Modernist Society at the Bourbon bar in Adams Morgan. There will be a lot of local IVAW members there, so it should be fun.