All posts by Kathy Kelly

Reversal

Another Mother for Peace (Poster Credit: Lorraine Schneider, 1966)

With survival at stake, can weapon makers change course?

Today, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the atomic attack on Hiroshima, should be a day for quiet introspection. I recall a summer morning following the U.S. 2003 “Shock and Awe” invasion of Iraq when the segment of the Chicago River flowing past the headquarters of the world’s second largest defense contractor, Boeing, turned the rich, red color of blood.  At the water’s edge, Chicago activists, long accustomed to the river being dyed green on St. Patrick’s Day turned the river red to symbolize the bloodshed caused by Boeing products. On the bridge outside of Boeing’s entrance, activists held placards urging Boeing to stop making weapons.

This summer, orders for Boeing’s commercial jets have cratered during the pandemic, but the company’s revenue from weapon-making contracts remains steady. David Calhoun, Boeing’s CEO, recently expressed confidence the U.S. government will support defense industries no matter who occupies the Oval Office. Both presidential candidates appear “globally oriented,” he said, “and interested in the defense of our country.”

Investors should ask how Boeing’s contract to deliver 1,000 SLAM- ER weapons (Standoff Land Attack Missiles-Expanded Response) to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia “defends” the United States.

Here are excerpts from Jeffrey Stern’s account of a missile’s impact on the town of Arhab in a remote area of Yemen. In this case, the missile was manufactured by Raytheon:

Now, as Fahd walked into the hut, a weapon about the length of a compact car was wobbling gracelessly down through the air toward him, losing altitude and unspooling an arming wire that connected it to the jet until, once it had extended a few feet, the wire ran out and ripped from the bomb.

Then it was as if the weapon woke up. A thermal battery was activated. Three fins on the rear extended all the way and locked in place. The bomb stabilized in the air. A guidance-control unit on the nose locked onto a laser reflection — invisible to the naked eye but meaningful to the bomb — sparkling on the rocks Fahd walked over.

At the well, at the moment of impact, a series of events happened almost instantaneously. The nose of the weapon hit rock, tripping a fuse in its tail section that detonated the equivalent of 200 pounds of TNT. When a bomb like this explodes, the shell fractures into several thousand pieces, becoming a jigsaw puzzle of steel shards flying through the air at up to eight times the speed of sound. Steel moving that fast doesn’t just kill people; it rearranges them. It removes appendages from torsos; it disassembles bodies and redistributes their parts.

Fahd had just stepped into the stone shelter and registered only a sudden brightness. He heard nothing. He was picked up, pierced with shrapnel, spun around and then slammed into the back wall, both of his arms shattering — the explosion so forceful that it excised seconds from his memory. Metal had bit into leg, trunk, jaw, eye; one piece entered his back and exited his chest, leaving a hole that air and liquid began to fill, collapsing his lungs. By the time he woke up, crumpled against stone, he was suffocating. Somehow he had survived, but he was killing himself with every breath, and he was bleeding badly. But he wasn’t even aware of any of these things, because his brain had been taken over by pain that seemed to come from another world.

In 2019, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen observed “the continued supply of weapons to parties involved in Yemen perpetuates the conflict and the suffering of the population.”

These experts say “the conduct of hostilities by the parties to the conflict, including by airstrikes and shelling, may amount to serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

A year and a half ago, were it not for a presidential veto, both houses of the U.S. Congress would have enacted a law banning weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Another end-user of Boeing’s weapons is the Israeli Defense Force.

The company has provided Israel with AH-64 Apache helicopters, F-15 fighter jetsHellfire missiles (produced with Lockheed Martin), MK-84 2000-lb bombs, MK-82 500-lb bombs, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) kits that turn bombs into “smart” GPS-equipped guided bombs. Boeing’s Harpoon sea-to-sea missile system is installed on the upgraded 4.5 Sa’ar missile ships of the Israeli Navy.

Apache helicopters, Hellfire and Harpoon missiles, JDAM guiding systems, and Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) munitions have been used repeatedly in Israeli attacks on densely populated civilian areas, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. The human rights community, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’Tselem, and United Nations commissions, ruled these attacks to be human rights violations and at times war crimes.

I lived with a family in Gaza during the final days of the 2009 “Operation Cast Lead” bombing. Abu Yusuf, Umm Yusuf, and their two small children, Yusuf and Shahid, welcomed Audrey Stewart and me to stay with them. Once every 11 minutes from 11 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. and again from 3:00 a.m. – 6:00 a.m., we heard an ear-splitting blast. Normally, I wouldn’t have known the difference between the sound of a Hellfire Missile exploding and that of a 500 lb. bomb dropped from an F-15, but soon I could tell the difference. Little Yusuf and Shahid taught us to distinguish one gut-wrenching sound from the other. They had been cringing under the bombs for 18 days and nights.

I don’t see how the sale of weapons to governments which use them against civilian populations, against people like Fahad, in Arhab or Abu Yusuf and his family in Gaza, defends people in the U.S.

Boeing’s vast resources for scientific know-how, skillful engineering, and creative innovation could, however, help defend the U.S. against the greatest threat we  now face, environmental climate catastrophe. Writing for The New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben predicts “a century of crises, many of them more dangerous than what we’re living through right now.” The main question, he says, is whether human beings can hold the alarming rise in temperature “to a point where we can at great expense and suffering, deal with those crises coherently, or whether they will overwhelm the coping abilities of our civilization.”

“A rise of one degree doesn’t sound like an extraordinary change,” McKibben writes, “but it is: each second, the carbon and methane we’ve emitted trap heat equivalent to the explosion of three Hiroshima-sized bombs.”

Boeing’s engineers, scientists, designers and marketers could help turn the tide of human actions destroying our earth. Their expertise could truly “defend” people.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the river flowing outside of Boeing’s headquarters. It actually flows backwards. Long ago, brilliant engineers designed a way for the river to reverse its course. In doing so, they saved Chicago from sewage contamination of its drinking water supply – Lake Michigan. This action was hailed as one of the great engineering wonders of the world.

The City’s sewers discharged human and industrial wastes directly to its rivers, which in turn flowed into the lake. A particularly heavy rainstorm in 1885 caused sewage to be flushed into the lake beyond the clean water intakes. The resulting typhoid, cholera, and dysentery epidemics killed an estimated 12 percent of Chicago’s 750,000 residents, and raised a public outcry to find a permanent solution to the city’s water supply and sewage disposal crisis.”

The Sanitary and Ship Canal was constructed at an estimated cost of over $70,000,000. After its completion, in 1900, waterborne disease rates quickly and dramatically improved, and its water supply system was soon regarded as being one of the safest in the world. With its water source made safe and dependable by the canals, Chicago and the region grew and prospered rapidly.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to dye the Chicago River red or green. We need to protect the river and all wildlife dependent on it. But, we must continually confront Boeing and other weapon manufacturers, and insist they not destroy lives, homes and infrastructures in other lands. We must urge Boeing, like the river, to reverse course and participate, with dignity and humility, in the pursuit of human survival.

Yemen: A Torrent of Suffering in a Time of Siege

When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!”  When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable, the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

— Bertolt Brecht, “When evil-doing comes like falling rain” [Wenn die Untat kommt, wie der Regen fällt] (1935), trans. John Willett in Poems, 1913-1956, p. 247

 In war-torn Yemen, the crimes pile up. Children who bear no responsibility for governance or warfare endure the punishment. In 2018, UNICEF said the war made Yemen a living hell for children. By the year’s end, Save the Children reported 85,000 children under age five had already died from starvation since the war escalated in 2015. By the end of 2020, it is expected that 23,500 children with severe acute malnutrition will be at immediate risk of death.

Cataclysmic conditions afflict Yemen as people try to cope with rampant diseases, the spread of COVID-19, flooding, literal swarms of locusts, rising displacement, destroyed infrastructure and a collapsed economy. Yet war rages, bombs continue to fall, and desperation fuels more crimes.

The highest-paying jobs available to many Yemeni men and boys require a willingness to kill and maim one another, by joining militias or armed groups which seemingly never run out of weapons. Nor does the Saudi-Led Coalition  which kills and maims civilians; instead, it deters relief shipments and destroys crucial infrastructure with weapons it imports from Western countries.

The aerial attacks displace traumatized survivors into swelling, often lethal, refugee camps. Amid the wreckage of factories, fisheries, roads, sewage and sanitation facilities, schools and hospitals, Yemenis search in vain for employment and, increasingly, for food and water. The Saudi-Led-Coalition’s blockade, also enabled by Western training and weapons, makes it impossible for Yemenis to restore a functioning economy.

Even foreign aid can become punitive. In March, 2020, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) decided to suspend most aid for Yemenis living in areas controlled by the Houthis.

Scott Paul, who leads Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy advocacy, strongly criticized this callous decision to compound the misery imposed on vulnerable people in Yemen. “In future years,” he wrote, “scholars will study USAID’s suspension as a paradigmatic example of a donor’s exploitation and misuse of humanitarian principles.”

As the evil-doing in Yemen comes “like falling rain,” so do the cries of “Stop!” from millions of people all over the world. Here’s some of what’s been happening:

  • U.S. legislators in both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to block the sale of billions of dollars in weapons and maintenance to Saudi Arabia and its allies. But President Trump vetoed the bill in 2019.
  • Canada’s legislators declared a moratorium on weapon sales to the Saudis. But the Canadian government has resumed selling weapons to the Saudis, claiming the moratorium only pertained to the creation of new contracts, not existing ones.
  • The United Kingdom suspended military sales to Saudi Arabia because of human rights violations, but the UK’s international trade secretary nevertheless resumed weapon sales saying the 516 charges of Saudi human rights violations are all isolated incidents and don’t present a pattern of abuse.
  • French NGOs and human rights advocates urged their government to scale back on weapon sales to the Saudi-Led coalition, but reports on 2019 weapon sales revealed the French government sold 1.4 billion Euros worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
  • British campaigners opposing weapon transfers to the Saudi-Led Coalition have exposed how the British Navy gave the Saudi Navy training in tactics essential to the devastating Yemen blockade.
  • In Canada, Spain, France and Italy, laborers opposed to the ongoing war refused to load weapons onto ships sailing to Saudi Arabia. Rights groups track the passage of trains and ships carrying these weapons.

On top of all this, reports produced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the International Commission of the Red Cross repeatedly expose the Saudi-Led Coalition’s human rights violations.

Yet this international outcry clamoring for an end to the war is still being drowned out by the voices of military contractors with well-paid lobbyists plying powerful elites in Western governments. Their concern is simply for the profits to be reaped and the competitive sales to be scored.

In 2019 Lockheed Martin’s total sales reached nearly 60 billion dollars, the best year on record for the world’s largest “defense” contractor. Before stepping down as CEO, Marillyn Hewson predicted demand from the Pentagon and U.S. allies would generate an uptake between $6.2 billion and $6.4 billion in net earnings for the company in 2020 sales.

Hewson’s words, spoken calmly, drown out the cries of Yemeni children whose bodies were torn apart by just one of Lockheed Martin’s bombs.

In August of 2018, bombs manufactured by Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin fell on Yemen like summer rain. On August 9, 2018, a missile blasted a school bus in Yemen, killing forty children and injuring many others.

Photos showed badly injured children still carrying UNICEF blue backpacks, given to them that morning as gifts. Other photos showed surviving children helping prepare graves for their schoolmates. One  photo showed a piece of the bomb protruding from the wreckage with the number MK82 clearly stamped on it. That number on the shrapnel helped identify Lockheed Martin as the manufacturer.

The psychological damage being inflicted on these children is incalculable. “My son is really hurt from the inside,” said a parent whose child was severely wounded by the bombing. “We try to talk to him to feel better and we can’t stop ourselves from crying.”

The cries against war in Yemen also fall like rain and whatever thunder accompanies the rain is distant, summer thunder. Yet, if we cooperate with war-making elites, the most horrible storms will be unleashed. We must learn — and quickly — to make a torrent of our mingled cries and, as the prophet Amos demanded, ‘let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Some of the 40 blue backpacks worn in a protest in New York city against the war in Yemen. Each backpack was accompanied by a sign with the name and age of a child killed on a school bus in Dahyan, northern Yemen, on August 9, 2018, in a Saudi/UAE airstrike. (Photo: CODEPINK)

A version of this article first appeared in The Progressive Magazine.

Our Disaster

An entire generation of Yemeni children has suffered the traumas of war, many of them orphaned, maimed, malnourished, or displaced. The United Nations reports a death toll of 100,000 people in that nation’s ongoing war, with an additional 131,000 people dying from hunger, disease, and a lack of medical care. A report from Save the Children, issued in November 2018, estimated at least 85,000 children had died from extreme hunger since the war began in 2015.

Since then, 3.65 million people have been internally displaced and the worst cholera outbreak ever recorded has infected 2.26 million and cost nearly 4,000 lives. Attacks on hospitals and clinics have led to the closure of more than half of Yemen’s prewar facilities.

“Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian disaster,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs wrote on April 23. “Nearly 80 percent of the population requires some form of humanitarian assistance and protection. Ten million people are a step away from famine, and seven million people are malnourished.”

The war has had a horrific impact on all Yemeni civilians, but it has compounded vulnerability to violence for women and girls. A recent AP report described a network of secret detention centers where security forces have severely abused women they’ve targeted as dissenters. In the Sanaa governorate alone, an estimated 200 to 350 women and girls are being held, according to multiple human rights groups. A U.N. panel of experts accused Sultan Zabin, the head of the Sanaa criminal investigative division, of running an undisclosed detention site where women have been raped and tortured.

World health experts regard Yemen as a potential hot spot for the coronavirus and have worked frantically to prepare for its arrival.

“Five years of fighting have degraded the health infrastructure, exhausted people’s immune systems, and increased acute vulnerabilities,” the United Nations said in mid-April. As a result, warned Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s top aid official, “COVID-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely, and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries.”

When Lowcock made this statement, Yemen had recorded just one confirmed case of COVID-19 and no deaths. As of May 31, Yemen had 337 confirmed cases and 89 deaths. On May 30, The Lancet quoted Altaf Musani, the World Health Organization’s representative in Yemen:

Based on recently applied models for the context in Yemen, we are estimating in a worst-case scenario with no mitigation measures 28 million people infected, at least 65,000 deaths, and around 494,000 hospitalisations. It is a deeply alarming situation, highly catastrophic if people do not make serious behavioural changes [and] if we do not make some course corrections.

The policies of the United States are deeply implicated in Yemen’s suffering, through the sale of billions of dollars in munitions to Saudi Arabia and other countries that have intervened in the civil war.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged the United Nations to reduce the aid it delivers to areas controlled by the Houthis.  A New York Times report quoted an unnamed diplomat as saying that Pompeo, at a 2019 conference in Warsaw, said the coalition forces should kick the stuffing out of the Houthis, although Pompeo, according to the unnamed diplomat, “used an earthier noun than stuffing.”

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia led a military coalition of nine Arab states to intervene in a conflict raging in Yemen. The coalition said it was acting to restore Yemen’s ousted president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, to power.

But professor Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni who teaches at Michigan State University, contends the coalition’s real motive was to gain control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a maritime “chokepoint” through which millions of barrels of crude oil flow each day.

The Saudi warmakers anticipated a brief war, dubbing it “Operation Decisive Storm,” and expecting to quickly overwhelm the rebellious fighters, called the Houthis. They believed the rebels would be no match for the combined military strength of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the seven other Arab countries in the coalition, who were collectively backed by the United States and the United Kingdom.

But the war dragged on for months, turning into a stalemate, with disastrous consequences for Yemeni civilians. The Saudis asked the United States for massive increases in the supply of weapons. By the end of 2015, Human Rights Watch documented the U.S. had sold Saudi Arabia 600 Patriot Missiles, a million rounds of ammunition, $7.8 billion in various weaponry, four Lockheed Littoral Combat Ships, and 10,000 advanced air-to-surface missiles, including laser-guided bombs and “bunker busting” bombs.

The Obama Administration, notes Al-Adeimi, sold Saudi Arabia $115 billion of weapons and provided additional support in the form of targeting assistance, training, and maintenance of aircraft and vehicles. The Trump Administration has continued to support Saudi Arabia, including its 2017 pledge to sell $350 billion in weapons to the repressive regime over a ten-year period. President Donald Trump cited this lucrative package in declining to take action against Saudi Arabia for murdering Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The United States has also provided cover for Saudi Arabia in the U.N. Security Council, which passed a resolution in April 2015 that demanded an end to Yemeni violence but made no mention of the Saudi-led intervention.

Al-Adeimi understands the difficult position the United Nations is in, since it depends heavily on donations from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. But she is dismayed by what she calls its “all-siding” the war — addressing the conflict as though it were between evenly matched opponents.

“One hundred thousand Yemenis have been killed,” Al-Adeimi says. “The Yemenis don’t have even one plane, much less fighter jets and warships!”

On March 27, the Trump Administration suspended aid to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, where 70 percent of Yemen’s population live. It accuses the Houthis of obstructing aid deliveries. Meanwhile, the Saudis are enforcing a blockade on all of Yemen’s land, sea, and airports, forcing its population into dependence on relief organizations.

Aisha Jumaan, a Yemeni who works as an epidemiologist in Washington State, says the effect of these aid cuts was immediate. She worries that Yemen may be manipulated by donors who can threaten to withhold desperately needed food, medicine, water, and fuel.

Jumaan and her organization, the Yemen Relief & Reconstruction Foundation, along with Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the Yemeni Alliance Committee, are urging the United States to reconsider its aid suspension, to give Yemen all possible resources to prevent and respond to COVID-19.

In May 2017, the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Yemen had clearly gone on longer than predicted. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared on national television and asked the Saudis to be patient. He said having a dialogue with the rebels was not possible, so the coalition was waiting them out, adding “Time is in our favor.”

Three years later, the war is still dragging on, and the flow of weapons from the United States continues unabated. Even now, in a shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin, Lockheed Martin has a multibillion-dollar contract to build four Littoral Combat Ships, which will be delivered to Saudi Arabia.

In 2019, the investigative website Bellingcat reported that eleven individual U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have each exported more than $100 million worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Altogether, the United States provided up to $6.8 billion in weapons including bombs, rocket launchers, and machine guns through March 2019.

Some of these weapons may be linked to war crimes. Identifying marks on U.S. bombs used in the 2018 Dahyan bus bombing, which killed forty children and eleven adults, linked back to a Lockheed Martin plant in Pennsylvania.

On a monthly basis, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned shipping company, Bahri, sends cargo ships to Wilmington, North Carolina, the Port of Baltimore and other U.S. ports, to collect bombs, grenades, cartridges, and defense-related aircraft. The United States also supplies weapons to Bahrain and other countries actively participating in the Saudi-led war against Yemen.

On April 8, the Saudi-led coalition declared a unilateral two-week ceasefire, expressing concern about the spread of COVID-19. But within days, the Houthis were battling groups loyal to the coalition, which retaliated with dozens of air strikes. The Houthis had already issued their own proposal for ending the war and insisted that no durable peace could be achieved without the withdrawal of foreign troops and a termination of the blockade.

When the two-week ceasefire expired, a spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition announced a month-long extension. Yet there were numerous reports of continued coalition air strikes. The Saudis may want to extricate themselves from the war, but so far they haven’t stopped the bludgeoning air strikes or lifted the blockade.

• A version of this article first appeared in The Progressive Magazine

Sanaa, Yemen. 30 April 2020. A health worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant on the hands of people at a market in the old city of Sanaa, amid concerns of the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).  Photo Credit: Hani Al-Ansi/dpa/Alamy Live News.

Beating Swords to Plowshares

Baghdad, March 20, 2003

Inscribed on a wall across from the United Nations in New York City are ancient words of incalculable yearning:

They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

— Isaiah 2:4

I’ve stood with activists in front of that same wall singing Down by the Riverside, a song promising we’ll lay down our swords and shields — “and study war no more, no more.”

In memorably eloquent words spoken after the onset of COVID-19, the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, had this message for the world:

The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown….. Put aside mistrust and animosity. Silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes. End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world. That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.

Some of my closest friends now await sentencing  for having embraced the call, quite literally, to “beat swords into plowshares.” They entered a U.S. naval base which is the home port to “one of the largest known collections of nuclear weaponry in the world.” The Kings Bay Nuclear Naval Station in St. Mary’s, GA operates a fleet of Trident nuclear submarines. On April 4, 2018, Mark Colville, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, Elizabeth McAlister, Patrick O’Neill, Carmen Trotta and Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J. prayed, poured blood, spray painted messages against nuclear weapons, hammered on a replica of a nuclear weapon, hung banners and waited to be arrested.

Steve Kelly, a Jesuit priest, has been locked up in the Glynn County Detention Center ever since the night the seven entered Kings Bay Naval Station. Now beginning his third year in jail, he writes that his cramped, dingy quarters are “a 21st Century monastery.” He prays, reads, listens, learns and writes. The Glynn County jail will only allow correspondence that uses 3 x 6 pre-stamped post cards. Steve has mastered the art of condensing his thoughts into short messages.  “Nuclear weapons will not go away by themselves,” he says.

Steve’s co-defendants have served varying lengths of time in the Glynn County jail and several had to wear ankle monitors, something like wearing leg irons, during home confinement. The six now await sentencing. Liz McAllister’s telephonic hearing will be held on June 8th. The others expect to appear in the Glynn County Courthouse on June 29 and 30. They face years in prison.

In October of 2019, a jury found the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 guilty of destruction and depredation of government property, trespassing, and conspiracy. Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled that the jury wouldn’t be allowed to hear expert witnesses or learn what motivated each of the seven to nonviolently resist nuclear weapons. She ruled out faith-based testimony.

In 2003, the Sisters of St. Brigid of Kildare, Ireland asked me to speak at a retreat for people whose faith-based convictions motivated them to nonviolently resist the impending U.S. war against Iraq. During the retreat I listened to concerns of five people who felt they were ready to risk their lives and futures, and might want to join our Iraq Peace Team in Baghdad. But when I returned to Baghdad, I learned they had instead committed a Plowshares action at Shannon airport.

Parked on the tarmac there was a U.S. Navy warplane. Ireland is a neutral country, and the activists believed they were justified in trying to prevent Ireland’s airport from being used to stage a belligerent war  in Iraq against civilians already beleaguered by earlier U.S. attacks and 13 years of economic sanctions. Entering the Shannon airport, they easily reached a U.S. Navy warplane, and they hammered on it. Harry Browne writes about the action in a book called Hammered by the Irish.

Fortunately, they were represented by extremely talented lawyers. One of them, Mr. Nix, (since deceased) has been referred to as the last of the great Irish orators. The judge wouldn’t allow expert witnesses, and, in fact, the only defense witness she would allow to speak was me since the five said they resolved to take action after hearing me speak at their retreat. She also declared there would be no faith-based testimony in her courtroom. Although she insisted war was not going to be put on trial, she had to comply with Irish law which allows lawyers to say anything they want in the final summation. Near the end of the trial, Mr. Nix rose to speak. He assured the judge and jury that the greatest pacifist of all time was Jesus of Nazareth and the greatest pacifist document ever written was the Sermon on the Mount, “and,” he said, “I’m about to read it to you right now!”

Finishing the beatitudes, he pointed to the defendants and described them as people who didn’t practice their faith as though they were at the delicatessen, choosing a bit of this or rejecting that. “They believe in their faith!” he said.

Then his tone changed as he reminisced about how happy he’d felt, recently, listening to children at play in a park near his home. The children chased the geese up a hill and then the geese chased the children downhill. What could be more beautiful than the sound of children at play? Then he began telling about children in Lebanon whose parents had taken them for a dip in the park the previous day. His face suddenly seemed to glower as he roared out that children were dying in a pool of their own blood. He described an Israeli missile blasting into the swimming hole, killing the children. And then it was as though he was putting all of us on trial. “Would you not try, if you could, to stop a Hezbollah missile from slamming into southern Israel? Would you not try, if you could, to stop an Israeli missile from slamming into a swimming hole in Lebanon? The question isn’t: did these five have a lawful excuse to do what they did! The question is: what’s our excuse not to do more?!  What will rise ye?!

The jury acquitted the five on all five counts. The lawyers had been able to skillfully introduce a necessity defense. In U.S. courts, during many dozens of Plowshares trials, the defendants are next to never allowed to invoke the necessity defense, to argue that they needed to act in order to prevent a greater harm. The laws protect those who develop, store, sell and use weapons. Those who call for disarmament and try to sound an alarm regarding the omnicidal consequences of nuclear weapons are tried narrowly on issues of property damage and trespass.

Riots have broken out in cities across the United States as protesters have vented frustrated rage following the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for seven minutes. Some observers have rushed to judge the protesters, highlighting the irrationality of looting and burning buildings in their own neighborhoods, ruining places that might even provide services or jobs. Yet what could be more self-defeating and irrational, during the midst of a pandemic while climate catastrophes threaten planetary survival, than the action of spending more money on nuclear weapons and possibly conducting nuclear bomb tests. Why squander resources on military capacity to burn other people’s homes and cities through use of nuclear and conventional weapons?

The prophet Isaiah’s vision arouses action on the part of people longing to build a better world. Mr. Nix’s questions should be ours today, earnestly asking:

Who are the criminals?

The question isn’t: did the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 have a lawful excuse to do what they did. The question is, what’s our excuse not to do more? What will rise us?

“He’s Got Eight Numbers, Just Like Everybody Else”

On April 4, 2020, my friend Steve Kelly will begin a third year of imprisonment in Georgia’s Glynn County jail. He turned 70 while in prison, and while he has served multiple prison sentences for protesting nuclear weapons, spending two years in a county jail is unusual even for him. Yet he adamantly urges supporters to focus attention on the nuclear weapons arsenals which he and his companions aim to disarm. “The nukes are not going to go away by themselves,” says Steve.

The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 now await sentencing for their action, performed two years ago inside the Kings Bay Trident Submarine base in southern Georgia. They acted in concert with many others who take literally the Scriptural call to “beat swords into plowshares.”  Commenting on their case, Bill Quigley, a member of their legal team, told me “their actions speak louder than  their words and their words are very powerful.” Bill encourages us to remember each of them in our thoughts, prayers, and, hopefully, through our actions. “The legal system is not big enough for the hearts, minds and spirits of these folks,” he adds. “The legal system tries to concentrate all of this down to whether you cut a fence or sprayed some blood.” Bill believes we should instead look at the impending disaster nuclear weapons could cause, and the continuing disaster they do cause by wasting crucially needed resources to potentially destroy the planet.

“You’ve got eight numbers just like everybody else.” Jailers sometimes use this line to subdue or humiliate a prisoner who complains or seems to ask for special treatment. I learned this during a two-month stint in a Missouri county jail, (for planting corn on top of nuclear missile silo sites).

Once inside the prison system, your number is more useful to the Bureau of Prisons than your name, and you grow accustomed to responding when your number is called. The eight numbers help blur personalities and histories.

I think jailers have a hard time finding any instances when Steve Kelly tries to pull rank or claim extra privileges. He’s a well-educated Jesuit priest who has traveled the world. Outside the prison, he’d often be found walking alongside people who migrate from one difficult situation to the next, blending in, trying to help. Inside a jail or prison, he has often preferred solitary confinement to “general population” which requires obedience to all rules. The cramped confines of the Glynn County Jail don’t have a more punitive space in which to put him. Amid the jail’s crowded, noisy, unhealthy conditions, he uses his time remarkably well. I surmise this from reading his weekly post cards which are always humorous, thoughtful, and encouraging.

From his vantage point, amid people immiserated by poverty and mass incarceration systems, he yet sees the nuclear threat as the one that most endangers people. When “nuclear states” insist on superiority because they can menace non-nuclear states, a dangerous nationalism arises. Using arsenals to back up a fortress mentality undermines our capacity for international cooperation now massively needed to tackle the major problems we face. “You’ve got eight numbers just like everybody else” could point to a humbling yet helpful reminder that we are confined together on this planet and constrained by the prospect of real crises like the pandemic we’re now weathering.

I can recall walking through wet markets in far-away places and shuddering at the sight of slaughtered, bloody carcasses hanging from hooks in the open air. I imagine Steve would catch me, with a certain glance and nod, and ask what could be more savage and destructive than a lab creating nuclear weapons to incinerate people.

At the end of World War I, soldiers emerged from trenches in the front lines and felt puzzled by the silence. Realizing the terrifying, horrific explosions had ended, that the war was over, they didn’t clap or cheer. Exhausted, they slumped over their packs, awaiting migration back to their homes.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, global silence may be appropriate. A new biological threat will still be conceivable, one that could equal climate change and a nuclear meltdown or nuclear winter. Climate catastrophes could exacerbate our human immunological vulnerability. It’s grim to reckon with the potential for a new, mutated wave of coronavirus or another virus altogether to cause further sorrow and death.

We’ll all need to pick up our packs and go back to work, determined to be far better prepared for life saving actions as we move into an uncertain future. Ideally, nuclear weapon arsenals will be recognized as a crazed burden we must finally shed if we’ve any hope of surviving our past recklessness.

At some point, hopefully, my friend Steve Kelly will hear a voice over a loudspeaker telling him to pack his belongings. He’ll have survived this chapter of punishment. He won’t very likely be released, as there is a warrant for his arrest for a previous protest action, but he’ll carry a small pack beyond the confines of the Glynn County Jail. More importantly, he’ll carry the challenge to continue dedicating his life to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. In these challenging times, those eight numbers distinguish him as a fine and invaluable leader to follow.

Vigil for Peace in Yemen, a New Norm

For the past three years, several dozen New Yorkers have gathered each Saturday at Union Square, at 11:00 a.m. to vigil for peace in Yemen.

Now, however, due to the coronavirus, the vigil for peace is radically altered. Last week, in recognition of the city’s coming shelter in place program, participants were asked to hold individual vigils at their respective homes on the subsequent Saturday mornings. Normally, during the public vigils, one or more participants would provide updates on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the ongoing war, and U.S. complicity. As COVID-19 threatens to engulf war-torn Yemen, it is even more critical to raise awareness of how the war debilitates the country.

If the vigil for peace were to gather in Union Square this Saturday, activists most certainly would draw attention to how Turkish officials  indicted 20 Saudi nationals for the murder of the dissident writer, Jamal Khashoggi. Turkey’s investigation of the murder and dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi indicts 18 people for committing the murder and names two officials for incitement to murder. One of them, General Ahmad Al-Asiri, a close associate of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was deputy chief of intelligence when Mr. Khashoggi was murdered.

Numerous news reports over the past five years establish a pattern of Mr. Al-Asiri responding to inquiries about Saudi-led coalition military attacks against Yemen civilians with misleading statements, outright denials and attempted cover-ups.

For example, On August 30th, 2015, according to Human Rights Watch, a Saudi coalition led airstrike attacked the Al-Sham Water Bottling Factory in the outskirts of Abs, in northern Yemen. The strike destroyed the factory and killed 14 workers, including three boys, and wounded 11 more.

Later on August 30, after the airstrike, Gen. Al-Asiri told Reuters that the plant was not a bottling factory, but rather a place where Houthis made explosive devices. However, all of the individuals Human Rights Watch interviewed concurred:

…that plant was being used to bottle water and was not used for any military purposes… A group of international journalists traveled to the site of the blast two days after it was hit and reported that they could not find evidence of any military targets in the area. They said that they carefully examined the site, and took photos and videos of piles of scorched plastic bottles melted together from the heat of the explosion. They could not find any evidence that the factory was being used for military purposes.

Meanwhile, Yemenis were desperately trying to contend with rising cases of cholera caused by shortages of clean water.

In October, 2015, when eyewitnesses declared a hospital in northern Yemen run by Doctors Without Borders was destroyed by Saudi-led coalition warplanes, Gen. Al-Asiri told Reuters coalition jets had been in action over Saada governorate but had not hit the hospital.

On August 15, 2016,  a Saudi-led bombing campaign again targeted a hospital in northern Yemen supported by Doctors Without Borders. 19 people were killed.

The Abs hospital was bombed two days after Saudi airstrikes attacked a school in northern Yemen, killing ten students and wounding dozens more.

Yet Saudi officials continued to insist they struck military targets only. Commenting on the August 13 school attack, Gen. Al-Asiri said the dead children were evidence the Houthis were recruiting children as guards and fighters.

“We would have hoped,” General Al-Asiri said, that Doctors Without Borders “would take measures to stop the recruitment of children to fight in wars instead of crying over them in the media.”

In one of the deadliest attacks of the war, on October 8, 2016, the Saudi-led military coalition’s fighter jets repeatedly bombed a hall filled with mourners during a funeral for an official in the capital city of Sana. At least 140 people were killed and 550 more were wounded.

General Al-Asiri, still a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, suggested there were other causes for the blast and later reported the coalition had not carried out any strikes near the hall. But outraged U.N. officials, backed up by videos on social media, insisted that airstrikes had massacred the mourners.

The United States has steadily sided with Saudi Arabia, including supplying it with weapons, training its armed forces and covering for it in the U.N. Security Council. But “Defense One,” a U.S. news agency intending to provide news and analysis for national security leaders and stakeholders, recently issued a stinging rebuke to the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. They denounced the “humanitarian abomination ushered by Riyadh’s war in Yemen,” and called his leadership “as destabilizing to the Middle East as its Iranian rival.” Defense One urged Washington to discontinue enabling “Riyadh’s most reckless behavior.”

Turkey’s indictment of 20 Saudi nationals for murder and their insistence that Mr. Al-Asiri bears responsibility may help move the court of public opinion to resist all support for the Kingdom’s ongoing war in Yemen.

Particularly now, with intense focus on U.S. health care, it’s timely to recognize that in the past five years U.S. supported Gulf Coalition airstrikes bombed Yemen’s health care facilities 83 times. As parents here care for children during school closures, they should be reminded that since December 13, 2018, eight Yemeni children have been killed or injured every single day. Most of the children killed were playing outdoors with their friends or were on their way to or from school. According to the Yemen Data Project, more than 18,400 civilians have been killed or injured by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies since the initial  bombing campaign in 2015.

U.S. national security leaders and stakeholders in war, as they shelter in place, have an extraordinary opportunity to set a new norm and link with the vigil for Peace in Yemen, virtually. And, some may even join Yale students on April 9, from sunrise to sunset, in their National Fast for Peace in Yemen. They invite us to pledge support for Doctors Without Borders and other relief groups in Yemen.

Activists practice “physical distancing” at a Saturday morning vigil for Peace in Yemen, Union Square, NYC (Photo Credit: Bill Ofenloch)

Stop Tightening the Thumb Screws: A Humanitarian Message

Protester’s sign decries sanctions, “a silent war” (Photo Credit: Campaign for Peace and Democracy, 2013)

U.S. sanctions against Iran, cruelly strengthened in March of 2018, continue a collective punishment of extremely vulnerable people. Presently, the U.S. “maximum pressure” policy severely undermines Iranian efforts to cope with the ravages of COVID-19, causing hardship and tragedy while contributing to the global spread of the pandemic. On March 12, 2020, Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif urged member states of the UN to end the United States’ unconscionable and lethal economic warfare.

Addressing UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Zarif detailed how U.S. economic sanctions prevent Iranians from importing necessary medicine and medical equipment.

For over two years, while the U.S. bullied other countries to refrain from purchasing Iranian oil, Iranians have coped with crippling economic decline.

The devastated economy and worsening coronavirus outbreak now drive migrants and refugees, who number in the millions, back to Afghanistan at dramatically increased rates.

In the past two weeks alone, more than 50,000 Afghans returned from Iran, increasing the likelihood that cases of coronavirus will surge in Afghanistan. Decades of war, including U.S. invasion and occupation, have decimated Afghanistan’s health care and food distribution systems.

Jawad Zarif asks the UN to prevent the use of hunger and disease as a weapon of war. His letter demonstrates the  wreckage caused by many decades of United States imperialism and suggests revolutionary steps toward dismantling the United States war machine.

During the United States’ 1991 “Desert Storm” war against Iraq, I was part of the Gulf Peace Team, – at first, living at in a “peace camp” set up near the Iraq-Saudi border and later, following our removal by Iraqi troops, in a Baghdad hotel which formerly housed many journalists. Finding an abandoned typewriter, we melted a candle onto its rim, (the U.S. had destroyed Iraq’s electrical stations, and most of the hotel rooms were pitch black). We compensated for an absent typewriter ribbon by placing a sheet of red carbon paper over our stationery. When Iraqi authorities realized we managed to type our document, they asked if we would type their letter to the Secretary General of the UN. (Iraq was so beleaguered even cabinet level officials lacked typewriter ribbons.) The letter to Javier Perez de Cuellar implored the UN to prevent the U.S. from bombing a road between Iraq and Jordan, the only way out for refugees and the only way in for humanitarian relief. Devastated by bombing and already bereft of supplies, Iraq was, in 1991, only one year into a deadly sanctions regime that lasted for thirteen years before the U.S. began its full-scale invasion and occupation in 2003. Now, in 2020, Iraqis still suffering from impoverishment, displacement and war earnestly want the U.S. to practice self-distancing and leave their country.

Are we now living in a watershed time? An unstoppable, deadly virus ignores any borders the U.S. tries to reinforce or redraw. The United States military-industrial complex, with its massive arsenals and cruel capacity for siege, isn’t relevant to “security” needs. Why should the U.S., at this crucial juncture, approach other countries with threat and force and presume a right to preserve global inequities? Such arrogance doesn’t even ensure security for the United States military. If the U.S. further isolates and batters Iran, conditions will worsen in Afghanistan and United States troops stationed there will ultimately be at risk. The simple observation, “We are all part of one another,” becomes acutely evident.

It’s helpful to think of guidance from past leaders who faced wars and pandemics. The Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-19, coupled with the atrocities of World War I,  killed 50 million worldwide, 675,000 in the U.S. Thousands of female nurses were on the “front lines,” delivering health care. Among them were black nurses who not only risked their lives to practice the works of mercy but also fought discrimination and racism in their determination to serve. These brave women arduously paved a way for the first 18 black nurses to serve in the Army Nurse Corps and they provided “a small turning point in the continuing movement for health equity.”

In the spring of 1919, Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton witnessed the effects of sanctions against Germany imposed by Allied forces after World War I. They observed “critical shortages of food, soap and medical supplies” and wrote indignantly about how children were being punished with starvation for “the sins of statesmen.”

Starvation continued even after the blockade was finally lifted that summer with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hamilton and Addams reported how the flu epidemic, exacerbated in its spread by starvation and post-war devastation, in turn disrupted the food supply. The two women argued a policy of sensible food distribution was necessary for both  humanitarian and strategic reasons. “What was to be gained by starving more children?” bewildered German parents asked them.

Jonathan Whitall directs Humanitarian Analysis for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors without Borders. His most recent analysis poses agonizing questions:

How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap? How are you supposed to implement ‘social distancing’ if you live in a slum or a refugee or containment camp? How are you supposed to stay at home if your work pays by the hour and requires you to show up? How are you supposed to stop crossing borders if you are fleeing from war? How are you supposed to get tested for #COVID19 if the health system is privatized and you can’t afford it? How are those with pre-existing health conditions supposed to take extra precautions when they already can’t even access the treatment they need?

I expect many people worldwide, during the spread of COVID – 19,  are thinking hard about the glaring, deadly inequalities in our societies, wonder how best to extend proverbial hands of friendship to people in need while urged to accept isolation and social distancing. One way to help others survive is to insist the United States lift sanctions against Iran and instead support acts of practical care. Jointly confront the coronavirus while constructing a humane future for the world without wasting  time or resources on the continuation of brutal wars.

An Eyewitness to  the Horrors of the US “Forever Wars” speaks out

Kathy Kelly and Maya Evans walk with children at the Chamin-E-Babrak refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 2014. (Abdulhai Darya)

The 2003 “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq had finally stopped. From the balcony of my room in Baghdad’s Al Fanar Hotel, I watched U.S. Marines moving between their jeeps, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees. They had occupied the street immediately in front of the small, family-owned hotel where our Iraq Peace Team had been living for the past six months. Looking upward, a U.S. Marine could see enlarged vinyl photos of beautiful Iraqi children strung across balconies of our fifth-floor rooms. We silently stood on those balconies when the U.S. Marines arrived in Baghdad, holding signs that said “War = Terror” and “Courage for Peace, Not for War.” When she first saw the Marine’s faces, Cynthia Banas commented on how young and tired they seemed. Wearing her “War Is Not the Answer” T-shirt, she headed down the stairs to offer them bottled water.

From my balcony, I saw Cathy Breen, also a member of the Iraq Peace Team, kneeling on a large canvas artwork entrusted to us by friends from South Korea. It depicts people suffering from war. Above the people, like a sinister cloud, is a massive heap of weapons. We unrolled it the day the Marines arrived and began to “occupy” this space. Marines carefully avoided driving vehicles over it. Sometimes they would converse with us. Below, Cathy read from a small booklet of daily Scripture passages. A U.S. Marine approached her, knelt down, and apparently asked to pray with her. He placed his hands in hers.

April Hurley, of our team, is a doctor. She was greatly needed in the emergency room of a nearby hospital during the bombing. Drivers would only take her there if she was accompanied by someone they had known for a long time, and so I generally accompanied her. I’d often sit on a bench outside the emergency room while traumatized civilians rushed in with wounded and maimed survivors of the terrifying U.S. aerial bombings. When possible, Cathy Breen and I would take notes at the bedsides of patients, including children, whose bodies had been ripped apart by U.S. bombs.

The ER scenes were gruesome, bloody and utterly tragic. Yet no less unbearable and incomprehensible were the eerily quiet wards we had visited during trips to Iraq from 1996 to 2003, when Voices in the Wilderness had organized 70 delegations to defy the economic sanctions by bringing medicines and medical relief supplies to hospitals in Iraq. Across the country, Iraqi doctors told us the economic war was far worse than even the 1991 Desert Storm bombing.

In pediatrics wards, we saw infants and toddlers whose bodies were wasted from gastrointestinal diseases, cancers, respiratory infections and starvation. Limp, miserable, sometimes gasping for breath, they lay in the arms of their sorrowful mothers, and seemingly no one could stop the U.S. from punishing them to death. “Why?” mothers murmured. Sanctions forbade Iraq to sell its oil. Without oil revenues, how could they purchase desperately needed goods? Iraq’s infrastructure continued to crumble; hospitals became surreal symbols of cruelty where doctors and nurses, bereft of medicines and supplies, couldn’t heal their patients or ease their agonies.

In 1995, UN officials estimated that economic sanctions had directly contributed to the deaths of at least a half-million Iraqi children, under age 5.

Kathy Kelly with children in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2016 (Provided photo)

The economic war continued for nearly 13 harsh and horrible years.

Shortly after the Marines arrived outside of our hotel, we began hearing ominous reports of potential humanitarian crises developing in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities. A woman who had been in charge of food distribution for her neighborhood, under the “Oil for Food” program, showed us her carefully maintained ledger books and angrily asked how all who had depended on the monthly food basket would now feed their families. Along with food shortages, we heard alarming reports about contaminated water and a possible outbreak of cholera in Basra and Hilla. For weeks, there had been no trash removal. Bombed electrical plants and sanitation facilities had yet to be restored. Iraqis who could help restore the broken infrastructure couldn’t make it through multiple check points to reach their offices; with communication centers bombed, they couldn’t contact colleagues. If the U.S. military hadn’t yet devised a plan for emergency relief, why not temporarily entrust projects to U.N. agencies with long experience of organizing food distribution and health care delivery?

Cathy, who is a nurse, Dr. April Hurley, and Ramzi Kysia, also a member of our group, arranged a meeting with the civil and military operations center, located in the Palestine Hotel, across the street from us. An official there dismissed them as people who didn’t belong there. Before telling them to leave, he did accept a list of our concerns, written on Voices in the Wilderness stationery.

The logo for our stationery reappeared a few hours later, at the entrance to the Palestine Hotel. It was taped to the flap of a cardboard box. Surrounding the logo were seven silver bullets. Written in ball-point pen on the cardboard was a message: “Keep Out.”

In response, Ramzi Kysia wrote a press release headlined: “Heavy-handed & Hopeless, The U.S. Military Doesn’t Know What It’s Doing In Iraq.”

Kathy Kelly holds Shoba at the Chamin-E-Babrak refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, in January 2014, a few days after the child had been saved from a burning tent, during a fire that destroyed much of the camp. (Abdulhai Darya)

In 2008, our group, renamed Voices for Creative Nonviolence, was beginning a walk from Chicago to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. We asked Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid to speak at a “send-off” event. He encouraged and blessed our “Witness Against War” walk  but then surprised us by saying he had never heard us mention the war in Afghanistan, even though people there suffered terribly from aerial bombings, drone attacks, targeted assassinations, night raids and imprisonments. Returning from our walk, we began researching drone warfare, and then created an “Afghan Atrocities List,” on our website, carefully updating it each week with verifiable reports of U.S. attacks against Afghan civilians.

The following year, Joshua Brollier and I headed to Pakistan and then Afghanistan. In Kabul, Afghanistan, we were guests of a deeply respected non-governmental organization Emergency, which has a Surgical Centre for War Victims there.

Filippo, a sturdy young nurse from Italy who was close to completing three terms of service with Emergency, welcomed us. As he filled a huge backpack with medicines and supplies, he described how the hospital personnel managed to reach people in remote villages who have no access to clinics or hospitals. The trip was relatively safe since no one had ever attacked a vehicle marked with the Emergency logo. A driver would take him to one of Emergency’s 41 remote first aid clinics. From there, he would hike further up a mountainside and meet villagers awaiting him and the precious medicines he carried. In a previous visit, after he had completed a term in Afghanistan, he said people had walked four hours in the snow to come and say goodbye to him. “Yes,” he said, “I fell in love.”

How different Filippo’s report was from those compiled in our Afghan Atrocities List. The latter tells about U.S. special operations forces, some of the most highly trained warriors in the world, traveling to remote areas, bursting into homes in the middle of the night, and proceeding to lock the women in one room, handcuff or sometimes hogtie the men, rip apart closets, mattresses and furniture, and then take the men to prisons for interrogation. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch filed chilling reports about torture of Afghan prisoners held by the U.S.

In 2010, two U.S. Veterans for Peace, Ann Wright and Mike Ferner, joined me in Kabul. We visited one of the city’s largest refugee camps. People faced appalling conditions. Over a dozen, including infants, had frozen to death, their families unable to purchase fuel or adequate blankets. When the rain, sleet and snow came, the tents and huts become mired in mud. Earlier, I had met with a young girl there whose arm had been cut off, her uncle told me, by a U.S. drone attack. Her brother, whose spine was injured, huddled under a blanket, inside their tent, visibly shaking.

Opposite the sprawling refugee camp is a huge U.S. military base. Ann and Mike felt outraged over the terrible contrast between the Afghan refugee camp with a soaring population of people displaced by war, and the U.S. base housing military personnel who had ample supplies of food, water, and fuel.

Most of the funds earmarked by the U.S. for reconstruction in Afghanistan have been used to train and equip Afghan Defense and Security forces. My young friends in the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV) were weary of war and didn’t want military training. Each of them had lost friends and family members because of the war.

In December 2015, I again visited Emergency’s Surgical Centre for War Victims in Kabul, joined by several Afghan Peace Volunteers. We donated blood and then visited with hospital personnel. “Are you still treating any victims of the U.S. bombing in Kunduz?” I asked Luca Radaelli, who coordinates Emergency’s Afghan facilities. He explained how their Kabul hospital was already full when 91 survivors of the U.S. attack on the Kunduz hospital operated by Médecins Sans Frontières were transported for five hours over rough roads to the closest place they could be treated, this surgical center. The Oct. 15 attack had killed at least 42 people, 14 of whom were hospital staff.

Kathy Kelly and Voices in the Wilderness delegation with Afghan Peace Volunteer friends in Bamyan, Afghanistan, in 2010 (Hakim Young)

Even though Kunduz hospital staff had immediately notified the U.S. military, the U.N., and the Afghan government that the U.S. was bombing their hospital, the warplane continued bombing the hospital’s ER and intensive care unit, in 15-minute intervals, for an hour and a half.

Luca introduced our small team to Khalid Ahmed, a former pharmacy student at the Kunduz hospital, who was still recovering. Khalid described the terrible night, his attempt to literally run for his life by sprinting toward the front gate, his agony when he was hit by shrapnel in his spine, and his efforts to reassemble his cell phone — guards had cautioned him to remove the batteries so that he wouldn’t be detected by aerial surveillance — so that he could give a last message to his family, as he began to lose consciousness. Fortunately, his call got through. His father’s relatives raced to the hospital’s front gate and found Khalid in a nearby ditch, unconscious but alive.

Telling his story, Khalid asked the Afghan Peace Volunteers about me. Learning I’m from the U.S., his eyes widened. “Why would your people want to do this to us?” he asks. “We were only trying to help people.”

Images of battered and destroyed hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of hospital personnel trying nevertheless to heal people and save lives, help me retain a basic truth about U.S. wars of choice: We don’t have to be this way.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to uproot entrenched systems, like the military-industrial-congressional-media-Washington, D.C., complex, which involves corporate profits and government jobs. Mainstream media seldom help us recognize ourselves as a menacing, warrior nation. Yet we must look in the mirror held up by historical circumstances if we’re ever to accomplish credible change.

The recently released “Afghanistan Papers” criticize U.S. military and elected officials for misleading the U.S. public by covering up disgraceful military failures in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials were quick to dismiss the critiques, assuring an easily distracted U.S. public that the documents won’t impact U.S. military and foreign policy. Two days later, UNICEF reported that more than 600 Afghan children had died in 2019, because of direct attacks in the war. From 2009 through 2018, almost 6,500 children lost their lives in this war.

Addressing the U.S. Senate and Congress during a visit to Washington, D.C., Pope Francis voiced a simple, conscientious question. “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” Answering his own question, he said: “the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”

What are the lessons learned from the rampage, destruction and cruelty of U.S. wars? I believe the most important lessons are summed up in the quote on Cynthia Banas’s T-shirt as she delivered water to Marines in Baghdad, in April, 2003: “War Is Not the Answer”; and in an updated version of the headline Ramzi Kysia wrote that same month: “Heavy-handed & Hopeless, The US. Military Doesn’t Know What It’s Doing” -in Iraq, Afghanistan or any of its “forever wars.”

• Originally published by National Catholic Reporter

Camp Bucca, Abu Ghraib and the Rise of Extremism in Iraq

Yesterday morning, President Trump announced the death of Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi and three of his children.

President Trump said Al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS, was fleeing U.S. military forces, in a tunnel, and then killed himself by detonating a suicide vest he wore.

In 2004, Al-Baghdadi had been captured by U.S. forces and, for ten months, imprisoned in both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca.

I visited Camp Bucca in January, 2004 when, still under construction, the Camp was a network of tents, south of Basra, in an isolated, miserable area of Iraq.

Before our three-person Voices delegation entered Iraq, that month, we waited for  visas in Amman, Jordan. While there, two young Palestinian men visited us and described their experiences during six months of imprisonment in Camp Bucca. Recalling the horrible experience, they remembered how fearful they felt, sleeping in sand infested with desert scorpions; they were paraded naked, for showers, in front of U.S. military women and told to bark like a dog or say “I love George Bush”  before their empty bowls would be filled with food. Unable to communicate with anyone outside the prison, they could only hope for release when their turn finally came to appear before a three-person Tribunal.

Five of their friends were still in the prison. They begged us to visit these friends and plead for their release. All of them were Palestinians studying for professional degrees in Baghdad. Reluctant to lose their chances of eventually graduating, they took a risk and remained in Baghdad throughout the 2003 Shock and Awe bombing. U.S. marines arrived at their dormitory on Baghdad’s Haifa Street and systematically rounded up students with foreign IDs. They were tagged as TCNs, “Third Country Nationals,” and herded off to various prisons.

In Baghdad, our friends in the Christian Peacemaker Teams had already developed a data base of names and prison numbers to help Iraqis discover the whereabouts of missing relatives. They found the prison numbers for two of the young men we were asked to visit and advised us to ask for Major Garrity, a U.S. military officer who was in charge of Camp Bucca.

We traveled to the southernmost town in Iraq, Umm Qasr, and sat on a weathered picnic table outside of Camp Bucca, awaiting Major Garrity’s decision. Prospects were bleak since we learned, upon arrival, that we’d come after visiting hours and the next day to visit was three days later. There was no shade, the sand was coated with black grease, and we constantly spat small black flies out of our mouths. Camp Bucca was one of the most hellish spots I’ve ever encountered. Yet we felt quite grateful when word arrived that Major Garrity had approved our visit.

A military pick-up truck drove us across an expanse of sand, and soon we were witnessing a tearful, tender embrace between one of the prisoners and his brother, a dentist from Baghdad, who had accompanied us. With no prompting, the prisoners, all in their twenties, corroborated the grievances their previously released friends expressed. They spoke of loneliness, monotony, humiliation and the fearful uncertainty prisoners face when held without charge by a hostile power with no evident plans to release them. They were, however, relieved to know we could tell their relatives we had met with them. Later, Major Garrity said the outlook for them being released wasn’t very positive. “Be glad they’re here with us and not in Baghdad,” she said, giving us a knowing look. “We give them food, clothes and shelter here. Be glad that they’re not in Baghdad.” Later, in May of 2004, CNN released pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison. We began to understand what she meant.

The November 3, 2005 issue of the New York Review of Books quoted three officers, two of them non-commissioned, stationed with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mercury in Iraq.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, they described in multiple interviews with Human Rights Watch how their battalion in 2003-2004 routinely used physical and mental torture as a means of intelligence gathering and for stress relief… Detainees in Iraq were consistently referred to as PUCs. The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief, where soldiers would go to the PUC tent on their off-hours to “f**k a PUC” or “smoke a PUC.” “F**king a PUC” referred to beating a detainee, while “smoking a PUC” referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness.

“Smoking” was not limited to stress relief but was central to the interrogation system employed by the 82nd Airborne Division at FOB Mercury. Officers and NCOs from the Military Intelligence unit would direct guards to “smoke” the detainees prior to an interrogation, and would direct that certain detainees were not to receive sleep, water, or food beyond crackers. Directed “smoking” would last for the twelve to twenty-four hours prior to an interrogation. As one soldier put it: “[The military intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to cooperate.

A sergeant told Human Rights Watch: “If he’s a good guy, you know, now he’s a bad guy because of the way we treated him.”

The violence that brought the Islamic State into being has a long history.

In numerous trips to Iraq from 1996 to 2003, our Voices delegation members grew to understand the unbearable weariness and suffering of Iraqi families eking out an uncertain existence under punishing economic sanctions. Between the wars, the death toll in children’s lives alone, from externally imposed economic collapse and from the blockade of food, medicine, water purification supplies and other essentials of survival, was estimated by the U.N. at 5,000 children a month, an estimate accepted without question by U.S. officials.

U.S. assaults, from Desert Storm (1991) to Shock and Awe (2003) — achieved through aerial bombings, children’s forced starvation, use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous, through bullet fire, night raids, blockaded medicines, emptied reservoirs and downed power lines, through abandoned state industries and cities left to dissolve in paroxysms of ethnic cleansing — have all been one continuous war. Along with the abuses of prisoners in places like Camp Bucca, FOB Mercury, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, U.S. warfare predictably led to the buildup of ISIS and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s commitment to “an eye for an eye.”

Asked, in 2016, to talk about his favorite passage in the Bible, President Trump said “eye for an eye.” He didn’t seem to realize that Jesus rejected this teaching.

“But I say unto you,” Jesus said, “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”

Rather than urge retaliation, Jesus spoke of dignified non-resistance through winning over the opponent.

We need not choose blindness, or the hatred that lets us be herded in fear. We can instead seek to pay reparations for suffering caused through our wars. We can work to abolish war, mourn the deaths of Al-Baghdadi’s children and question how conditions inside U.S. military camps in Iraq led to the extremism of Al-Baghdadi and his ISIS followers.

Trident Is the Crime

On October 24, following a three-day trial in Brunswick, GA, seven Catholic Workers who acted to disarm a nuclear submarine base were convicted on three felony counts and one misdemeanor. The defendants face 20 years in prison, yet they emerged from their trial seeming quite ready for next steps in their ongoing witness. Steve Kelly, a Jesuit priest who has already spent ten years in prison for protesting nuclear weapons, returned, in shackles, to the local jail. Because of an outstanding warrant, Steve has been locked up for over eighteen months, since the day of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 action.

On that day, April 4, 2018, the group had entered a U.S. Navy Submarine base which is a home port for the Trident nuclear missile fleet. Just one of those nuclear missiles, if launched, would cause 1,825 times more damage than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Plowshares activists aimed to expose illegal and immoral weapons that threaten all life on earth.

They had spent two years in prayerful preparation for their action. Two of them, Mark Colville and Liz McAlister, spent most of the months before their trial began in the Glynn County jail. Three others, Martha Hennessy, Carmen Trotta and Clare Grady wore “ankle monitors” and were subject to strict curfews for many months while they engaged in outreach and prepared for trial. Because federal law requires 60 – 90 days before sentencing, to allow for background checks, the seven probably won’t be sentenced before late December.

My colleague Brian Terrell, who attended all of the trial, described the chief prosecutor as a bully. In a series of accusations, this prosecutor claimed that Clare Grady and her co-defendants believed themselves to be “a law unto themselves.” Clare calmly pointed out that “the egregious use of weapons is bullying, not the painted peace messages.”

Emerging from the courthouse, the defendants and their lawyers earnestly thanked  the numerous supporters who had filled the courtroom, the overflow court room and the sidewalks outside the court. Bill Quigley, the main lawyer for the defense, thanked the defendants for their efforts to save “all of our lives,” noting the jury was not allowed to hear about weapons with enough power to destroy life on earth as we know it. Liz Mc Alister, who with Phil Berrigan had helped found the Plowshares movement, turned 79 years old while in jail. She thanked supporters but also urged people to be active in opposing nuclear weapons and the abuses of the U.S. prison system.

When I learned of the jury’s verdict, I had just signed a post card to Steve Kelly. The Glynn County jail only allows correspondence crammed into one side of a pre-stamped 3 x 5 post card. In tiny cursive, I told him about events in Kashmir where the Muslim majority has engaged in 80 days of civil resistance to the Indian government’s abrogation of  two articles of the Indian constitution which allowed Kashmiris a measure of autonomy. India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed states, have twice gone to war over control of Kashmir. It’s a deeply disconcerting flashpoint representing the possibility of nuclear armed states triggering an exchange of bombs which could cause a nuclear winter, mass starvation and widespread, long-lasting environmental destruction.

Some years ago, Steve and I had participated in a delegation to visit human rights advocates in Pakistan, and I recall marveling at Steve’s grasp of the nuclear threat manifested in conflict between India and Pakistan. Yet he and his companions have clearly asserted that U.S. possession of nuclear weapons already robs the poorest people on the planet of resources needed for food, shelter and housing.

After learning the verdict I wrote a second card, telling Steve that we who love him long for his release, but know we must also be guided by his choice to remain silent in the court. Steve believes the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal should be tried in the court of public opinion. He says the U.S. legal system protects those who maintain and build the criminal, deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons. Inside the court, people didn’t hear Steve’s strong, clear voice. His friends can’t help but imagine the sound of shackles hitting the floor of the Glynn County jail, followed by heavy doors clanging as Steve and other prisoners are ordered into their cells

In 1897, from England’s Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote a letter, entitled “De Profundis.” He was serving the final four months of a two-year sentence to hard labor. One of his main jailers was certain he would never survive the harsh conditions. Wilde found himself transformed during the prison time, and he developed a profound understanding of human suffering. “Where there is sorrow,” Wilde wrote, “there is holy ground.”

The U.S. nuclear weapon arsenal creates anguish, fear and futility worldwide. Yet “holy ground” exists as activists work toward abolition of nuclear weapons.