Category Archives: Children/Youth

A Story of Resurrection

Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating change you do choose.
— Michelle Rosenthall

A feature on a local person usually doesn’t go down the rabbit hole of a person’s trauma and her battles scraping to get out of darkness.

A few artists I’ve interviewed  unleashed catharses into their personal journeys, including personal hells; however, after reading my drafts, many have declined to “expose” so much of their lives for public consumption. The exposing of one’s trials and tribulations is powerful to readers, but many times opening up in person is easy; seeing it in print is devastating.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is not a great place to find healing, though, and a person like Oregon Coast resident Kiera Morgan faces those demons head on. She embraces the good, bad and ugly of her totality.

The Central Oregon Coast (where I live) has remarkable narratives of people who face down homelessness, incarceration, depression, poverty, illness — what some call the school of hard knocks to the tenth power. Trudging out of the dark into the bright burning light serves up powerful survivors’ tale. It is a microcosm to the rest of the USA, the world.

Kiera Morgan fits this to a tee. I met her last year at Depoe Bay’s Neighbors for Kids (a non-profit for families in need of a place for children to be when parents are working) while I was giving a presentation on an anti-poverty program I am heading up in Lincoln County.

Her nose for news quickly motivated Kiera to get me on camera for her weekly show, “Coffee with Kiera.” This is a newish Lincoln County digital platform of her own creation: Pacific Northwest News and Entertainment.

A few months later, here I am talking to her on phone, my first interview conducted with the impersonal tools of social distancing.

I ask Kiera several times — “Are you okay with the dirty laundry aired and published in a newspaper?”

I am not ashamed of where I came from. I think my story could be a learning lesson for others.

ACES — the deck is stacked

Her story is one of reclamation — radio DJ-ing, theater and a newshound background. She has been out here since 1994. Setting down coastal roots entailed pain, struggle and personal discord. Kiera is now at her sweet spot — a good marriage to Tony Thomas (with Rogue Brewery in Newport  for 12 years) and her own involvement in civic and community programs.

She has been on (or is currently a member of) such diverse advisory boards as the Salvation Army, Retired Seniors Volunteer Program, Partnership Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse and Central Coast Child Development Center.

Sort of the “why” of Kiera’s involvement in these social services non-profits weaves back to her early years as well as her adulthood: she was born in Idaho 55 years ago; moved to Bend; ended up in Gresham by the age of five. She’s spent time in Portland, Pendleton, Sweet Home and, finally, the Central Oregon Coast.

Though she’s not “just” defined as a child of early divorce, Kiera recalls a stepdad who was an abusive alcoholic. She ended up emotionally and physically battered.

We bring up ACES — Adverse Childhood Experiences. I’ve worked in education, with gang prevention programs, newly released prisoners and foster teens. Training around ACES, I was galvanized to in understanding my students’ and clients’ childhood traumas. Those negative events early on have concrete outcomes — future violence victimization and perpetration, lifelong physical and mental health issues, substance abuse, homelessness and plethora of lost opportunities as adults.

The adage, “it takes a village to raise a child,” is pivotal in how society should create neighborhoods, communities and situations where children can thrive. Letting children fall through the cracks and live in abusive, impoverished homes nullifies many possibilities of a thriving adulthood.

Kiera emphasizes how our communities pay for this as fellow citizens get involved in substance abuse, are challenged with illiteracy and fall into myriad unhealthy lifestyle “choices.” As a community, we pay in many ways for these people failing through the cracks:

Poverty, violent parents, substance abuse in the household and being a foster youth are all high-influencing ACES.

Kiera ticks off all of the above. Her biological father was out of the picture, she says, not because that was his choice. Her mother was not emotionally sound to break away from an abusive husband, her step-father.

She moved in briefly with her biological father who was a chef and baker in Rhododendron at an operation centered around rental cabins.

“I would go to the restaurant for meals,” she says, emphasizing how she rode her bike to friends’ homes, and was able to hang with farm animals at her friends’ parents’ farms.

“My dad was good-natured, a very positive person. He would literally give the shirt off his back to anyone in need. He was a happy man, and everyone called him, Hap.”

Getting back up

Kiera’s time with her biological father ended when a private detective, hired by Kiera’s mother, stated he saw Hap letting his young daughter hang out by herself in their cabin while her father was just around the corner working in the restaurant.

More ACES: whipped by her step-father, and bruises on her body. “I literally had the design of his belt on me because he hit me so hard.”

Her biological father would show up to his sister’s house. They called the police once, and the step-father told the officer the marks were evidence of normal disciplining. Nothing happened to the abuser.

The young Kiera witnessed her stepfather’s heavy drinking. She had the marks of being swatted and belted, and she held in the emotional pain. The vicious cycle of a mother allowing the abuse of the child by a male step-parent put Kiera front and center into his rage. She was grabbed by the throat, her hair pulled and head slammed against the wall.

The next day the sixth grader showed a teacher the fingerprint bruises on her neck and welt on the back of the head.

Is this proof enough, or do I have to die before you believe me?

This journey has more twists and turns in Part Two published on the OCT website, but as one bookend to her life, Kiera reiterates, “I want to be like my dad — loving and a smile on my face. It’s important for me to expand my web site. It puts me at peace knowing I can help others through the news site.”

PTSD may stand for post traumatic stress disorder, but the label could mean Personally Tough Strong Dame after spending time with Kiera Morgan.

So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive

— Audre Lorde

Kiera is open about her life, about survival. She recounts how she was living paycheck to paycheck in Sweet Home. She was with an alcoholic, a husband who “did get physical with me, punched me.”

She emphasizes leaving an abusive spouse is not always an option. Kiera knows the psychological underpinnings of “battered spouse syndrome” by heart. She went back to this fellow many times.

One instance, Kiera’s sister came to get her, and Kiera spent her time couch surfing, virtually homeless. She lived in her car. “Nine months pregnant. Jeff found out where I was. He told me he missed me. I knew better, though, but I went back to him.”

The vicious cycle of believing a man can and will change when the bottle or the needle are more important in their lives is not atypical.

At the end of her pregnancy, she was quickly feeling massive heartburn. Eventually she went to OHSU where she was diagnosed with toxemia, which meant bed rest. On Sept. 10, 1992, a six-pound, nine-ounce Nick was born.

Foster parents bow out

Being put into a foster home and being told that you are just like their own daughter is powerful. More impacting is having these foster parents tell you they are done fostering and want out of the deal.

Kiera had that experience in 8th grade. Afterward, she got packed up and sent to a different foster home, this time in Gresham. “They had lots of kids. It was that they needed a babysitter for the other foster kids, and I was it.”

Kiera laughs, telling me she constantly listened to the Billy Joel song, “My Life.”

She had an older foster sister, aged 16, who stole and used drugs. “I could have easily gone down that path.”

Her Aunt Jean told her that she was going to be her daughter. Another change in schools. “It was tough, even though I knew Aunt Jean loved me. I really loved music and that what really helped me get through some rough parts.”

She was obsessed with record clubs, and she got into Queen, the Bee Gees, Journey, Cheap Trix and others.

My aunt always encouraged me to work. I babysat and worked at an after-school program for a Montessori School.”

Theater, she says, was a lifesaver for her. She was involved in the Overlook Acting Company that gathered in North Portland. She calls those people “my theater family.”

She also got involved in the Big Sister program. That sister, Lois, paid for a plane ticket to go to Alaska so Kiera could visit Lois’s family. But tragedy struck — her biological father was killed in a sandstorm in Idaho, hit from behind by a semi. Kiera had only been in Alaska two days when she got the news of his death.

She graduated from high school in 1983 at age 17 and went to work for a window treatment company.

More tragedy. Her foster mom was aged 60 when she was diagnosed with an inoperative brain tumor. Kiera took care of Jean for three weeks, before she passed away.

“I’ve been on my own since age 17.”

After she died, an ex-husband of Lois showed and took away the house.

Kiera was working in Beaverton for a dry cleaners, and then the day care center, and landed another job, at an Albertson’s bakery. There, she met a woman whose husband was director of the National Broadcasting School in Portland.

Work, buses from one side of Portland to the other, and this amazing school. She graduated as valedictorian. Her first gig was with KFIR AM/FM in Sweet Home.

It was a country station. “I had grown up on KGON since I was a baby. I was a rock ’n’ roller.”

Country Western music grew on her.

She ended up in an abusive relationship, but he was the father of her son. She ended in a domestic violence shelter in Pendleton. One thing led to another and she drove to Newport, found jobs and a house and ended up at the Shilo Inn as a DJ.

She was in a small trailer up the Alsea River near Waldport, Oregon.

Nick is 28 years old and had his first baby July 2019 with Amelia. Three years ago, Keira and Tony (they were married in 2001) bought a house in Newport Heights.

Kiera’s life is one of struggle, but with plenty of highlights too: working for KZVS-Toledo, KFND, delivering newspapers, retail work for the Chocolate Basket. She also works for KSHL — the Wave, 93.7 FM — doing sales and PSAs.

She and Tony have his son, Nathan, and girlfriend sharing the house with Rocky the cat and two shih tzus.

Her takeaway at the end of the interview:

I want people to feel hope.

Q & A Rapid-fire

PH: What makes you tick inside?

KM: What makes me tick, is work. I am a hopeless workaholic. I like to stay busy and be in touch with what is going on around me.

PH: What do you like about this county, this community?

KM: What I like about Lincoln County and this community is the willingness to help others when they are in need. When the chips are down for someone or an event creates a situation where people need help, like right now, we step up and help.

PH: What advice would you give a young woman who is in a viscous and abusive relationship? The elevator speech.

KM: I would say to a woman in an abusive situation that they should use their best judgement to protect themselves and loved ones. Don’t always believe everything your abuser says. If you can get out and do so safely there are those who can help you recover and get back on your feet. Most of all get counseling!!

PH: What are two big changes you have seen since first moving to Lincoln County almost 30 years ago?

KM: One of the biggest changes I have seen is the effort to help those and a better understanding of homelessness. I think people now realize that those who are homeless are not that way because they are lazy, they are families who work but simply can’t afford high rents and costs of getting into homes or apartments with fees and credit checks. I am also proud of the changes being made to have a better understanding between law enforcement, the community and those who have a mental illness and the work to get them the help they need.

PH: What are the top two issues that need addressing in Lincoln County?

KM: One of the top issues that concerns in Lincoln County, in my opinion, remains the lack of quality child care! Families often can’t afford the high cost of child care so they turn to the next best thing. This is not always a safe choice but when we live in a county that is not a M-F, 9-5 community it leaves parents with little choice. There is an extreme lack of infant care. This makes two parent families choose between only one parent working or having to work opposite shifts, which puts a strain on families. If I have said it once I will say it a thousand times “you can’t have economic development without childcare.” Families need a safe place for their kids to go for them to be able to work, it also defeats the purpose when the parent is working is paying nearly all of their paycheck to childcare. Help from the state or from companies is essential. Homelessness would be the second. There are many options that could be explored that have been done in other areas including creating small house communities, instead of trailer parks that would be managed by programs such as Grace Wins or the programs in Lincoln City.

PH: If you could do some things over in your life, what would they be?

KM: I am old enough now to realize that the mistakes that we make in our lifetime are what helps us to learn and grow as a person and become better. Love and appreciate those you have in your life, as we truly never know when things can change.

PH: What’s your basic life philosophy?

KM: My basic life philosophy is happiness. Do what makes you happy, treat others with the respect and kindness that you would like to be shown.

Eternal Fixation: The Madeleine McCann Disappearance Show

The “lost child” endures as motif and theme, the stalking shadow of much literature, the background to a society’s anxiety.  The child, often deemed innocent, becomes the ink blot of loss in such disappearance.  In Australia, it was captured by Peter Pierce’s The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety (1999).  In wide spaces, innocence has much room to go wrong in, to vanish and encourage judgment.

Madeleine McCann was never merely a lost child who disappeared in the Algarve from her family’s holiday apartment on May 3, 2007.  She remains a fixation of the British media stable, and, it should be said, to an unhealthy degree.  Her disappearance was a fire that burned with little Englander, flag-waving rage, often directed against the Portuguese and judgmental about any efforts in investigation.  The McCann story was, in Giles Tremlett’s words, “a snapshot of Britain and its poisonous media culture”, but also those indifferent Britons who were happy to enjoy the sun of the Iberian Peninsula without much care for their host countries.  Such tourists, and residents, could often be beastly, preoccupying local police and emergency units with their overdoses, intoxicated late night swims, night club fighting and the occasional drowned toddler in a villa swimming pool.

The McCann furnace tended to burn most of its participants, including the grieving parents, who were a daily feature of news bulletins till saturation, stepping out of their Praia da Luz apartment and photographed with paparazzi enthusiasm.  For a brief spell, police interest shifted to them, more out of formality than anything else.  An interest was registered in their parenting skills and their lifestyle.  Should they have left their three-year old daughter unattended in an easily accessible flat as they feasted on tapas with friends who did the same?  Did they sedate their child?  It would explain why there were no screams, no howls of despair, as a stranger carted the child away.

As novelist Anne Enright weighed in, “If someone else is found to have taken Madeleine McCann – as may well be the case – it will show that the ordinary life of an ordinary family cannot survive the suspicious scrutiny of millions.”  (Worth noting here is the savage attack on Enright for her generally balanced reflection.  Janet Street-Porter, editor-at-large at The Independent raged, calling her “charmless”, a hater of Kate McCann “who is guilty of no crime, except being fit and attractive”.)

In covering the disappearance, and the vain investigation to recover her or find a culprit, views and commentaries flourished with speculative detail, malicious mauling, and mawkish reverence.  The reputation of Kate and Gerry McCann served to shift in the sands of public consciousness, a projection of class and status.  Initially, as was to be found in the Daily Mail, they were the perfect, unsullied parents, both of medical background, their daughter being blond and insufferably cute.  Brimming of the middle class ethic, they were to be seen and judged through such eyes, with their daughter fulfilling a role akin to caricature about what innocence would look like.  “This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to people like us,” bleated Allison Pearson of the Daily Mail.

But things did turn on them, with a sort of reverse snobbery.  The Daily Express was particularly keen on that front, with their reporters encouraged to target the McCanns for unsubstantiated responsibility for their daughter’s demise.  The same attention had not been paid to, for instance, the vanishing of British toddler Ben Needham in Kos in 1991.  As Owen Jones noted in sharp fashion in Chavs (2012), “Kidnappings, stabbings, murders; those are things you almost expect to happen to people living in Peckham or Glasgow.  This sort of tragedy was not supposed to happen to folks you might bump into doing the weekly shop at Waitrose.”

The McCanns could always count on their defenders.  Des Spence found himself performing that role in the British Medical Journal, finding it impossible to presume that the parents were culpable in any way.  (Sod the police; we know better.)  “The McCanns merely did as countless thousands of other parents have done. Any blame of guilt is grossly misplaced and unkind, for they are victims of an act of utter malevolence. No one has the right to question the McCanns’ parental commitment.”

The case had been on a slow burn, embers visible to those caring to watch.  In addition to personal efforts on the part of the McCanns to hire personal investigators, Scotland Yard also committed its own resources in Operation Grange.  Several police forces have been preoccupied with the investigation.

Now, a blast of air has been given to the matter, with the grim announcement by the Braunschweig Public Prosecutor’s Office about the latest developments.  “We are assuming,” stated a solemn Hans Christian Wolters, “that the girl is dead.  With the suspect, we are talking about a sexual predator who has already been convicted of crimes against little girls and he’s already serving a long sentence.”  The suspect in question, one Christian D., had been a regular resident of the Algarve between 1995 and 2007, working in the catering industry and doing his bit of drug dealing and burgling of holiday flats.  To date, the prosecutor general’s office in Portugal have yet to find a record of any crimes committed by the suspect, though they are re-opening their investigation on that front.

Despite the news, family spokesman Clarence Mitchell revealed that he could not “recall an instance when the police had been so specific about an individual.  Of all the thousands of leads and potential suspects that have been mentioned in the past, there has never been something as clear cut as that from not just one, but three police forces.”

While the German stance on this has settled upon the view that Madeleine is no longer alive, the Met Police in Britain hold to the view that this remains a “missing persons” investigation.  In doing so, another offering to perpetuate the McCann mystery has been made, one that has become self-propagating, ceaseless and remorselessly vulgar.

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.

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)

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

Work of Necessity, Work of Choice

At age 11, Saabir Gulmadin began chopping wood to support his family. Now 18, he earns about $1.50 US (120 Afghanis) for every 56 kg of wood he splits. It takes him 2 to 3 hours.

“Is the work hard on your body?” I ask.

“Ohhh, yes,” he says, without hesitation.

“Where does it hurt?”

Saabir raises his right hand to give his thin upper arm a couple of squeezes.

Saabir supports the 8 Pashtun family members in their home in Kabul, Afghanistan. His father died from an illness when Saabir was 6, and by age 8, Saabir was working in the streets, transporting items in a wheelbarrow.

A few days ago, the House of the Afghan Parliament approved a law on the protection of children, but it only addresses, in principle, children age 5 and younger. At least a quarter of Afghan children ages 5 to 14 work. With no social safety net, few avenues exist for families to meet basic needs. Given the decades of war, extreme poverty, and the highest number of drug addicts in the world, families in Afghanistan who have lost their breadwinner are often left with two choices: send a child out to work or join the 219 million forcibly displaced migrants, seeking food and physical safety.

A group of Afghan high school and university students, the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APVs), is taking a step to increase families’ financial security with a program that teaches Afghan teenagers a trade. Instead of calling for a blanket ban on child labor, they believe that if a youth is taught a trade to earn money for food and other necessities, this training may in fact enable that youth to stay in school.

Having studied at the APVs’ Street Kids School for almost two years, Saabir recently joined a course to learn how to repair cell phones. In past years, students at the Street Kids School would receive a monthly food ration of rice, lentils, oil, and other basic food items if they regularly attended the school’s nonviolence and literacy classes, but the APV youth coordinators have decided to shift from running the food distribution program to offering training in livelihood skills.

Twenty-one self-selected students from the Street Kids School age 13 and older, and 3 family members of younger students, are taking the repair course at the private Gharejestan University in Kabul.

During a recent class, some students brought their own cell phones to class, and as in the US, could not resist checking messages as the instructor talked about “factory reset” and “safe mode.” Mohammad Haidary, age 16, sat in the front of the classroom, listening attentively and asking questions. During the first two weeks, Mohammad has learned the parts of a cell phone, the problems that arise when a SIM card is faulty, and how improper language settings can turn recognizable speech in SMS messages to a series of squares and question marks.

Like Saabir, Mohammad started working young, at about age 9 or 10, joining Hazara family members in weaving carpets at home. He is taking the cell phone repair course because he wants to be able to repair his own phone if something goes wrong, or the phones of his friends. The repair shops charge high prices for a simple problem, he says. He also believes he’ll be able to find a better job and be able to keep attending school. “It takes me a month, together with my family members, to weave a carpet,” Mohammad says, often working all day and therefore unable to attend school. “But with the repair of mobile phones, I don’t have to use the whole day, and the income is higher.”

Mohammad values having his own phone to review school lessons shared digitally by his teachers and to listen to downloaded English audio lessons. He agrees with the transition from providing food gifts to teaching a trade: “I may be able to find a job in the future, and that will, in fact, enable me to have an income. . . . With that income, I can also, then, meet my food needs.”

Saabir Gulmadin, left, works with a fellow Street Kids School student during a cell phone repair course at Gharejestan University.

Among the youngest in the repair course is Gul Mohammad Jamshadi, 14, from the Uzbek ethnic group. The cut off is age 13, in part because Afghans would be unlikely to trust in him for a repair if he were much younger.

Gul Mohammad started selling bread in a bakery when he was 8. Now he works in a provisions shop, earning 200 Afghanis per week, about $2.50 US. This weekly pay is just double the cost of what a Kabul repair shop charges to replace a phone charger.

Gul Mohammad Jamshadi, left, solders parts to a motherboard. Mohammad Haidary, wearing a hat, works to his left.

Gul Mohammad works to support his mother, his unmarried sister, and himself. His elder brother was killed, and his father has passed away. He says he doesn’t have the tools or phone parts to practice at home what he learns in class, but he studies his course book.

If children like himself had a choice, Gul Mohammad thinks it better that they be able to study instead of having to work, better if the government would ensure that the needs of children were met. He values an education and doesn’t want to join the estimated 1.6 million addicts in the country. When the course ends, Gul Mohammad plans to work part time repairing phones while continuing in school. “If I don’t study, I could become like some people who stop studying and become addicts and who can’t find any job to support their families.”

Christmas Visions: Children and the Importance of Redemption

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.

The Factory

And such should childhood ever be,
The fairy well; to bring
To life’s worn, weary memory
The freshness of its spring.

But here the order is reversed,
And infancy, like age,
Knows of existence but its worst,
One dull and darkened page;—”

by Letitia Elizabeth Landon – The Vow of the Peacock and Other Poems  (1835)

Introduction

The idea of a child-centred Christmas is taken for granted now but in Dickens’ time it was not so assured. A high child mortality rate, child labour, poverty and, a colder, more utilitarian attitude towards children prevailed.  Dickens’ own childhood experiences were bad as he was set to work long hours in  Warren’s Blacking Factory while his father and family languished in a debtors prison. Dickens wanted to write a pamphlet about children but decided a dramatic story would be more effective. His book, A Christmas Carol, while sales were slow initially, went on to become hugely successful and influential, and has never been out of print since.

Dickens at the blacking warehouse, as envisioned by Fred Barnard

In the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life (directed by Frank Capra), children are associated with family scenes around the hearth but are shielded from potential financial disaster. It’s a Wonderful Life also performed poorly at first, yet has also become a Christmas staple.

The theme of redemption is important to both narratives and both stories turn on the idea of a change of heart for the better by the adults. This change affected the lives of the children in each story yet the children were not aware of the dangers they were in. Thus the concept of childhood as ‘the fairy well’ was well developed, and the ‘freshness of its spring’ being considered a jewel that only grows more beautiful with age.

In this essay I will look at some similarities between the two stories and at what has made for their enduring appeal.

A Christmas Carol

While many differing ideas seem have fortuitously come together for Dickens during the writing of A Christmas Carol the focus on children seems to have been the  most important. Literary influences are given as The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving and a Douglas Jerrold essay from an 1841 issue of Punch, ‘How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas’.

In The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon Irving writes:

It was the policy of the good old gentleman to make his children feel that home was the happiest place in the world; and I value this delicious home-feeling as one of the choicest gifts a parent could bestow.

Child labourers, Macon, Georgia, 1909

Dickens was very aware of the tragedy of child workers and legislation being introduce to improve their conditions at the time. The idea of social unity that Dickens utilises at the end of A Christmas Carol is expressed in another passage by Irving in The Sketch-Book, as we hear echoes of the medieval hall resounding to the sounds of the fun organised in the ancient midwinter tradition of the Lord of Misrule, with children once again to the fore:

After the dinner-table was removed the hall was given up to the younger members of the family, who, prompted to all kind of noisy mirth by the Oxonian and Master Simon, made its old walls ring with their merriment as they played at romping games. I delight in witnessing the gambols of children, and particularly at this happy holiday season, and could not help stealing out of the drawing-room on hearing one of their peals of laughter. I found them at the game of blindman’s-buff. Master Simon, who was the leader of their revels, and seemed on all occasions to fulfill the office of that ancient potentate, the Lord of Misrule, was blinded in the midst of the hall. The little beings were as busy about him as the mock fairies about Falstaff, pinching him, plucking at the skirts of his coat, and tickling him with straws.”

Once again the innocent fun of the children is emphasised.  However, in Jerrold’s essay ‘How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas’, a different kind of father is described, one for whom image is more important than feeling. Mr Chokepear is described as “he himself declares, he is ‘the best of fathers’ — the most indulgent of men”, yet he receives the wishes of a happy Christmas “from lips of ice.” He is the best citizen and best Christian but for one thing:

We have said all CHOKEPEAR’S daughters dined with him. We forgot: one was absent. Some seven years ago she married a poorer husband, and poverty was his only, but certainly his sufficient fault; and her father vowed that she should never again cross his threshold. The Christian keeps his word. He has been to church to celebrate the event which preached to all men mutual love and mutual forgiveness, and he comes home, and with rancour in his heart—keeps a merry Christmas! […] Gentle reader, we wish you a merry Christmas; but to be truly, wisely merry, it must not be the Christmas of the CHOKEPEARS. That is the Christmas of the belly: keep you the Christmas of the heart. Give—give.

Dickens is concerned with genuine Christian ideas of Christmas in A Christmas Carol and not hypocritical ones for show only. Therefore, Scrooge is given the opportunity to redeem himself in a genuine way and this genuine transformation means he will be welcomed into the Cratchit’s house and the house of of his nephew for Christmas celebrations.

Thus Dickens was interested in the idea that the bosses should have a genuine change of heart and not a false annual display of good cheer for their friends. Dickens himself was interested in giving practical help to poor children as well.

Coal tub – “A succession of laws on child labour, the so-called Factory Acts, were passed in the UK in the 19th century. Children younger than nine were not allowed to work, those aged 9–16 could work 16 hours per day per the Cotton Mills Act. In 1856, the law permitted child labour past age 9, for 60 hours per week, night or day. In 1901, the permissible child labour age was raised to 12.

In 1843 Charles Dickens became involved with  with the London Ragged Schools Union and donated funds for their upkeep. They were established to provide free education, food, clothing, lodging and other home missionary services for poor children.

As Claire Tomalin writes:

From his own deep self he drew the understanding that a grown man may pity the child he had been, and learn from that pity, as Scrooge does. It was also his response to the Ragged School he had visited, and the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission he had read a little earlier, which showed that children under seven were put to work, unprotected by any legal constraints, sometimes for ten to twelve hours a day, inspiring the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two stunted and wolfish children, calling them Ignorance and Want.1

Of course, while the children may be the focus of Dickens’ Christmas main story, they must not be aware that they are, thus retaining the sacred concept of childhood. Therefore in the narrative the children are affected only indirectly through the changed habits of the adults. This was Dickens’ strategy – to show that the cruelty of the world and the preciousness of childhood could exist side by side. Thus the adults could change their realm, positively affecting the children’s realm, without the two realms interacting with each other, as happened in Dickens’ own childhood. Dickens’ story also added to the growing belief in the importance of childhood not only for children but also for stable adults as Scrooge was shown to have had a lonely childhood himself.

Ignorance and Want from the original edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843

Many film versions have been made of A Christmas Carol from Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost (1901) to A Christmas Carol (2018), a contemporary retelling of the story set in Scotland.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Another popular film with Christmas visions is Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost one hundred years after Dickens’ novel was published, Capra’s film shows a very different kind of vision of society. Rather than the atomised society of the poor in Dickens’ London, Capra shows a community being pulled and pushed in different directions by individuals with very different objectives. George Bailey faces off Henry F. Potter who is trying to take over the town with cheap, exploitative housing schemes and by buying up everything of value in the town.

As Bailey faces bankruptcy of the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan through the forgetfulness of his uncle (mislaying a lot of money), Potter seizes the opportunity to destroy Bailey’s bank and take over the town completely. When Bailey arrives home distraught he has angry words with all of his children. They become very upset and burst into tears as they have no idea what has come over their normally loving father.

As a result of this disaster, Bailey wishes he had never been born and is shown a vision of what the town would have become had Bailey’s community spirit and camaraderie with his clients not existed: a mean place, decadent and aggressive with no community feeling or community spirit (like Scrooge, mean, aggressive with no community feeling or community spirit). After the negative scenario he experiences, Bailey rushes home to his wife and apologises to each of his children in turn for his earlier outburst thus keeping the adult and child domains separated, while the adults sort out adult problems.

Unlike Scrooge, in It’s a Wonderful Life the individualist money-pincher Potter is not considered important enough to go through the process of redemption (while he is portrayed as a Scrooge type figure), because  the poor are now portrayed as existing in a community which can ultimately defend itself from Potter’s attacks: by coming together and using collective action to help Bailey. They look to each other for help and not to the rich bankers.

Although both Scrooge and Bailey lend money, Scrooge gives out money to benefit himself while Bailey gives out money to benefit the community. In the earlier ideology of A Christmas Carol, the wealthy must look after or take pity on the helpless poor. However, while Scrooge must save himself, the community saves Bailey.

George Bailey (James Stewart), Mary Bailey (Donna Reed), and their youngest daughter Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) in It’s a Wonderful Life.

In A Christmas Carol the poor are everywhere but have no real consciousness of their poverty and struggle against poverty despite the odds. In It’s a Wonderful Life the poor are depicted as belonging to a community but gradually grow more conscious of their weak position and unite to defend themselves.

They develop a growing consciousness of the power of the community to use collective action to fight back against those who would keep them poor. As a result, rather than being solely concerned with their own money and future as was shown earlier in the film, they see the importance of community for their own self-protection just in time, and turn up at Bailey’s house to lend, give, donate any money they have to save the bank and their own future. Thus in It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s the community that redeems itself.

Both Dickens’ book and Capra’s film carried radical messages for their time. Only two years after A Christmas Carol, German philosopher Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845, a book written during Engels’ 1842–44 stay in Manchester, important as the city at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Engels believed that Carlyle was the only British writer who had taken account of the poor and so was not yet familiar with A Christmas Carol. Meanwhile Marx saw Dickens as one of a few ‘splendid’ fiction writers in England, “whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

While It’s a Wonderful Life depicts the benefits of a community uniting, it was declared suspect by an unnamed FBI agent who watched the film as part of a larger FBI program aimed at detecting and neutralizing Communist influences in Hollywood. The agent believed that ‘communists’ used two common tricks to ‘inject propaganda into the film’, as Kat Eschner writes:

These two common “devices” or tricks, as applied by the Los Angeles branch of the Bureau, were smearing ‘values or institutions judged to be particularly American’ – in this case, the capitalist banker, Mr. Potter, is portrayed as a Scroogey misanthrope – and glorifying ‘values or institutions judged to be particularly anti-American or pro-Communist’ – in this case, depression and existential crisis, an issue that the FBI report characterized as a ‘subtle attempt to magnify the problems of the so-called ‘common man’ in society.’

The organization handed over these incredibly vague results of its investigation to HUAC (House of UnAmerican Activities) which could have led to McCarthyist Hollywood witch hunts. However, the HUAC decided not to follow up on the smears.

Conclusion

In both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful life, a common theme is the idea that people can change for the better and have a happier life by questioning their own selfish values and motives and by realising that there are greater forces at work which must be reckoned with for survival. Scrooge’s isolation from friends, family and employees led him to fear a lonely death and Marley’s fate. Bailey’s customers also realise that looking after number one might allow them to get by on the level of their own petty concerns, but when something seriously threatening to their homes and families appears on the horizon they are able to club together to prevent the worst. Ultimately it is the children who benefit as the adults unite and solve problems rather than sharing the burden with their children, and in the long term that also makes for a more stable community.

The idea of sheltering children from the cruel world, rather than throwing them head first into it, is still an important issue in the world’s poorest countries today where around one in four children are believed to be engaged in child labour.

Agriculture deploys 70% of the world’s child labour. Above, child worker on a rice farm in Vietnam.

On an individual level and on a community level these two stories have everlasting appeal because they are still relevant today. The continuing political, financial, and climate crises of the 21st century mean that the need for individual self-questioning and/or community action will never cease to be important, and maybe even be life-saving as the new century wears on.

  1. Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking: London, 2011) p. 149.

Ending Violence, Exploitation, Ecological Destruction and War

The date 11 November is well known and commemorated in many parts of the world because it marks the Armistice ending World War I – ‘the Great War’ – in 1918.

In the evocative words used by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., an atheist humanist, in his novel Breakfast of Champions, the day is remembered thus:

When I was a boy … all the people of all the nations which fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was at that minute in nineteen-hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields at that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

And what, exactly, did God (by whatever name: Allah, Krishna, Yahweh…) or the Gods say? we might ask. Well even those who profess little more than scant knowledge of religious texts that purport to represent the word of God might suggest that s/he simply breathed a (silent) sigh of relief that the insanity of mass warfare had ended. For now at least.

For those of us concerned with the struggle to create cultures of peace or, even, a world culture of peace, there are some fundamental questions to consider including the classic question discussed by two of humanity’s greats – Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud – when they tackled the question ‘Why War?

Of course, as many people now understand it, peace entails far more than simply a state without military (including terrorist) violence and war. Beyond these forms of violence, many exponents of peace seek the end of other dimensions of what I call ‘visible’ violence, including:

a) Direct violence that goes beyond military violence, such as biological violence (that is, violence against the body) in the family home and as a result of violent crime as well as ‘physical violence’ (that is, constraints on movement).

b) Institutional violence: socially endorsed violence including that inflicted by parents, teachers, police, legal and prison systems and which now manifests in a myriad other forms with the emergence of the surveillance state that spies on and gathers endless data on individuals to build substantial personal profiles on each – linking many personal records including those related to health and financial matters with political activities and consumption patterns – in violation of any basic understanding of, or commitment to, human rights in their many political, economic, social, cultural and other forms.

c) Structural violence which Mohandas K. Gandhi originally identified when making his observation that ‘exploitation is violence’ and Professor Johan Galtung later elaborated as violence built into structures, such as capitalism and imperialism, that deprive some people of the opportunities to live full and meaningful lives and manifest, for example, as poverty, homelessness and the economic exploitation of people who live in Africa, Asia and Central/South America. And,

d) Ecological violence: those activities ranging from destruction of the climate and rainforests to the killing of insects and wildlife that constitute destruction of the biosphere.

Of course, these categories are not mutually exclusive but they serve to illustrate categories of violence not always recognized as such.

Apart from these forms of ‘visible’ violence Professor Johan Galtung also identified the importance of psychological violence – ‘lies, brainwashing, indoctrination of various kinds, threats, etc. that serve to decrease mental potentialities’ – and coined the term cultural violence to describe ‘those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) – that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence’.

Beyond these and other categories of violence – including patriarchy and racism as specific manifestations of violence that are, arguably, simultaneously direct, structural and cultural – which stand between humanity and a culture of peace, there are two other categories of violence which I will argue it is necessary to end before we can make profound inroads in ending those mentioned above.

These two categories – which I have labeled invisible violence and utterly invisible violence – describe vitally important categories of violence which human adults inflict on children. Moreover, complemented by the ‘visible’ violence that adults inflict on children, it is this ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence which destroys the unique human individual who was created during a nine-month gestation period and turns them into a ‘socially constructed delusional identity’ who submissively fulfills the extraordinarily limited expectations of their particular adult world and, with only rare exceptions, willingly participates in many if not all of the other forms of violence that torment our world and certainly includes inflicting invisible and utterly invisible violence on their own children. Which is why the cycle of violence goes on.

Why is this?

Because society is preoccupied with producing submissively obedient students, workers, soldiers, citizens (that is, taxpayers and voters) and consumers. Hence, the last thing society wants is powerful individuals who are each capable of searching their conscience, feeling their emotional response to events, thinking critically and behaving strategically in response. For that reason our parenting and education models use a ruthless combination of visible, ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence to ensure that our children become terrified, self-hating and powerless individuals like virtually all of the adults around them.

How does this happen? What is this ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence?

Perpetrators of violence learn their craft in childhood. If you inflict violence on a child, they learn to inflict violence on others. The political leaders who decide to wage war, the military leaders who plan and conduct it, as well as the soldiers, sailors and aircraft personnel who fight war each suffered violence as a child. The terrorist suffered violence as a child. The man who inflicts violence on his partner suffered violence as a child. The corporate executive who exploits working class people and/or those who live in Africa, Asia or Central/South America suffered violence as a child. The racist or religious bigot suffered violence as a child. The individual who perpetrates violence in the home, in the schoolyard or on the street suffered violence as a child. The individual who overconsumes, or even consumes certain products, and/or otherwise destroys the biosphere, suffered violence as a child.

If we want to end violence in all of its manifestations and create a culture of peace, locally and globally, then we must finally end our longest and greatest war: the adult war on children. And here is an additional incentive: if we do not tackle the fundamental cause of violence, then our combined and unrelenting efforts to tackle all of its other symptoms must ultimately fail. And extinction at our own hand is inevitable.

How can I claim that violence against children is the fundamental cause of all other violence? Consider this. There is universal acceptance that behaviour is shaped by childhood experience. If it was not, we would not put such effort into education and other efforts to socialize children to ‘fit into’ their society. And this is why many psychologists have argued that exposure to war toys and violent video games shapes attitudes and behaviours in relation to violence.

But it is far more complex than this and, strange though it may seem, it is not just the ‘visible’ violence (such as hitting, screaming at and sexually abusing) that we normally label ‘violence’ that causes the main damage, although this is extremely damaging. The largest component of damage arises from the ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence that we adults unconsciously inflict on children during the ordinary course of the day. Tragically, the bulk of this violence occurs in the family home and at school.

So what is ‘invisible’ violence? It is the ‘little things’ we do every day, partly because we are just ‘too busy’. For example, when we do not allow time to listen to, and value, a child’s thoughts and feelings, the child learns to not listen to themSelf thus destroying their internal communication system. When we do not let a child say what they want (or ignore them when they do), the child develops communication and behavioral dysfunctionalities as they keep trying to meet their own needs (which, as a basic survival strategy, they are genetically programmed to do).

When we blame, condemn, insult, mock, embarrass, shame, humiliate, taunt, goad, guilt-trip, deceive, lie to, bribe, blackmail, moralize with and/or judge a child, we both undermine their sense of Self-worth and teach them to blame, condemn, insult, mock, embarrass, shame, humiliate, taunt, goad, guilt-trip, deceive, lie, bribe, blackmail, moralize and/or judge.

The fundamental outcome of being bombarded throughout their childhood by this ‘invisible’ violence is that the child is utterly overwhelmed by feelings of fear, pain, anger and sadness (among many others). However, mothers, fathers, teachers, religious figures and other adults also actively interfere with the expression of these feelings and the behavioral responses that are naturally generated by them and it is this ‘utterly invisible’ violence that explains why the dysfunctional behavioral outcomes actually occur.

For example, by ignoring a child when they express their feelings, by comforting, reassuring or distracting a child when they express their feelings, by laughing at or ridiculing their feelings, by terrorizing a child into not expressing their feelings (for example, by screaming at them when they cry or get angry), and/or by violently controlling a behavior that is generated by their feelings (for example, by hitting them, restraining them or locking them into a room), the child has no choice but to unconsciously suppress their awareness of these feelings.

However, once a child has been terrorized into suppressing their awareness of their feelings (rather than being allowed to have their feelings and to act on them) the child has also unconsciously suppressed their awareness of the reality that caused these feelings. This has many outcomes that are disastrous for the individual, for society and for nature because the individual will now easily suppress their awareness of the feelings that would tell them how to act most functionally in any given circumstance and they will progressively acquire a phenomenal variety of dysfunctional behaviors, including some that are violent towards themself, others and/or the Earth.

From the above, it should also now be apparent that punishment should never be used. ‘Punishment’, of course, is one of the words we use to obscure our awareness of the fact that we are using violence. Violence, even when we label it ‘punishment’, scares children and adults alike and cannot elicit a functional behavioural response.

If someone behaves dysfunctionally, they need to be listened to, deeply, so that they can start to become consciously aware of the feelings (which will always include fear and, often, terror) that drove the dysfunctional behaviour in the first place. They then need to feel and express these feelings (including any anger) in a safe way. Only then will behavioural change in the direction of functionality be possible.

‘But these adult behaviors you have described don’t seem that bad. Can the outcome be as disastrous as you claim?’ you might ask. The problem is that there are hundreds of these ‘ordinary’, everyday behaviors that destroy the Selfhood of the child. It is ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and most children simply do not survive as Self-aware individuals. And why do we do this? As mentioned above, we do it so that each child will fit into our model of ‘the perfect citizen’: that is, obedient and hardworking student, reliable and pliant employee/soldier, and submissive law-abiding citizen (that is, one who pays their taxes and votes and/or lobbies politicians).

Moreover, once we destroy the Selfhood of a child, it has many flow-on effects. For example, once you terrorize a child into accepting certain information about themself, other people or the state of the world, the child becomes unconsciously fearful of dealing with new information, especially if this information is contradictory to what they have been terrorized into believing. As a result, the child will unconsciously dismiss new information out of hand.

In short, the child has been terrorized in such a way that they are no longer capable of learning (or their learning capacity is seriously diminished by excluding any information that is not a simple extension of what they already ‘know’). If you imagine any of the bigots you know, you are imagining someone who is utterly terrified. But it’s not just the bigots; virtually all people are affected in this manner making them incapable of responding adequately to new (or even important) information. This is one explanation why some people are ‘climate deniers’, most people do nothing in response to the climate catastrophe and even those people who do take action usually do so ineffectively.

But the same can be said for those working to end war, end the nuclear weapons race or engage in other struggles, including liberation struggles, that are vital parts of the global struggle to create a culture of peace.

To briefly reiterate this vital point (that each child has been terrorized in such a way that they are no longer capable of learning or their learning capacity is seriously diminished): The multifaceted violence inflicted throughout childhood and adolescence ensures that the adult who emerges is suppressing awareness of an enormous amount of fear, pain, sadness and anger (among many other feelings) and must live in delusion to remain unaware of these suppressed feelings. This ensures that, as part of their delusion, the individual develops a strong sense that what they are doing already is functional and working (no matter how dysfunctional and ineffective it may actually be) while unconsciously suppressing awareness of any evidence that contradicts their delusion. They do this because, unconsciously, people learn to identify obedience with ‘functional and working’ (because they do not get punished for being obedient).

As an aside, if you want to read more evidence of humanity’s ‘love’ for our children and get a clearer sense of just how deeply violence is buried in human society, see ‘Humanity’s ‘Dirty Little Secret’: Starving, Enslaving, Raping, Torturing and Killing our Children.’

Just one horrific outcome of this violence against children is that our planet is run by a global elite that is completely insane. And this elite plays a key role in driving many of the more obvious manifestations of violence in our world.

Responding to Violence Strategically to Create a World Culture of Peace

However we define the many positive elements of a culture of peace – which will presumably include an inclusive philosophy of society, a cooperative set of social relations, nonviolent methods for dealing with conflict and sustainable patterns of matter-energy use while allowing universal human access to the resources necessary to maintain health and well-being, opportunities for meaningful political and economic engagement as well as cultural opportunities in art, literature and music among its many other forms, while engaging sustainably with the biosphere to enhance life-opportunities for all other species – this culture of peace can only be achieved if we respond strategically to the violence in our world.

And this means that we must address the fundamental cause of human violence because this drives violence in each and all of its other dimensions. For those adults powerful enough to do this, there is an explanation in ‘Putting Feelings First.’1

Creating a culture of peace, therefore, relies fundamentally on understanding the critical role of suppressed feelings (emotions) in shaping deep culture and generating conflicts, including violent conflicts, and then taking action that addresses this cause.

This includes the need to understand and deal effectively with those emotions that are being acted out dysfunctionally and/or being projected in a particular context, which is standard human behaviour in many situations. Otherwise, that most fundamental of emotions – fear – will continue to drive most cultural predispositions and conflicts in all contexts and make genuine resolution of conflicts virtually impossible. This is because it is only if people are not afraid that discussions about ideas in relation to making culture evolve as we plan (rather than unconsciously or as elites direct) and to resolve conflict nonviolently, become easily possible.

Fundamentally, our parenting and education models fail utterly to produce people of conscience, people who are emotionally functional, people who are capable of critical analysis, people who care and people who can plan and respond to violence strategically. As Professor Galtung noted just recently, “While we are busy exploring whether there is intelligent life on other planets, we might spend more time – and intelligence – exploring whether there is [intelligent life] on ours.” The problem is that once we terrorize a child, the terrified adult who emerges from childhood behaves as guided by their (unconscious) fear, not by any intelligence they may possess. Again, this is routinely illustrated by the failure of even those who self-label as ‘activists’ to think, plan and act strategically.

Of course, we do not need to work on ending violence against children in isolation. We can campaign to end other manifestations of violence – such as war, nuclear weapons and power, economic exploitation, ecological violence in its many forms including geoengineering and the deployment of 5G, violence against women and indigenous peoples, occupations and dictatorships – at the same time.

But if we work to end the many manifestations of violence while failing to address the fundamental cause then, ultimately, we must fail, even if we elongate our timeframe a little.

If you are also interested in working locally to reduce your consumption and become more self-reliant, in order to reduce your ecological violence, consider participating in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth‘.

Alternatively, if you want something simpler, consider committing to:

The Earth Pledge

Out of love for the Earth and all of its creatures, and my respect for their needs, from this day onwards I pledge that:

  1. I will listen deeply to children (see explanation above)
  2. I will not travel by plane
  3. I will not travel by car
  4. I will not eat meat and fish
  5. I will only eat organically/biodynamically grown food
  6. I will minimize the amount of fresh water I use, including by minimizing my ownership and use of electronic devices
  7. I will not buy rainforest timber
  8. I will not buy or use single-use plastic, such as bags, bottles, containers, cups and straws
  9. I will not use banks, superannuation (pension) funds or insurance companies that provide any service to corporations involved in fossil fuels, nuclear power and/or weapons
  10. I will not accept employment from, or invest in, any organization that supports or participates in the exploitation of fellow human beings or profits from killing and/or destruction of the biosphere
  11. I will not get news from the corporate media (mainstream newspapers, television, radio, Google, Facebook, Twitter…)
  12. I will make the effort to learn a skill, such as food gardening or sewing, that makes me more self-reliant
  13. I will gently encourage my family and friends to consider signing this pledge.

And you might wish to join the worldwide movement of people working to end all violence by signing the online pledge of  ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World.’

Conclusion

The foundation of our violent world is the unending visible, invisible and utterly invisible violence that human adults inflict on our children. For that reason, it does not matter what superstructure we build on top of this foundation. Whether we use capitalism (and ‘democracy’), socialism or any other political-economic-social model, tack on a New Green Deal or a Just Transition, while the violent foundation on which society is built – violence against children – remains unaddressed, a culture of peace cannot be created.

So we need to raise children in a culture that does not involve terrorizing them so that they end up perceiving violence as the primary way to address conflict because they are too scared to simply perceive the power of, and use, principled nonviolent options.

Hence, until our parenting and teaching models are radically altered, a culture of peace will remain an impossible dream. And human extinction in the near term is inevitable.

  1. For those adults committed to facilitating children’s efforts to realize their potential and become self-aware (rather than delusional), see ‘My Promise to Children.’

Why Making Young School Children Observe Veterans Day Is Problematic

Summary: Encouraging elementary school children to honor and glorify the military without a deeper understanding of militarism and war is simply indoctrination.

As we approach Veterans Day in the United States, many schools across the country will engage in some sort of activities or ceremonies to commemorate this holiday and those to whom it is dedicated. On the face of it, there is nothing inherently wrong with honoring people who have made sacrifices to defend their homeland, but the way we do it in the United States is fundamentally wrong and deeply disturbing, especially when young children are implicated in this.

In recent years it appears as though elementary schools across America have held more special events for Veterans Day. As part of these activities, children are encouraged to thank, honor, and even revere veterans. The basic problem with this is how it is framed and communicated to the children. Are they actually being taught what wars are, and why they are fought? Or are they merely told to thank and admire a veteran for their service? In order to have veterans, there had to have been wars. In order to understand the concept of a veteran, one needs to understand the concept of war. A 7-year-old child in elementary school hardly understands what war is. And if they don’t understand what war is, how can they understand what a veteran is, let alone honoring them in a meaningful way? And even if these children were to understand the basic premise of wars and veterans, how likely are they to actually make sense of this, when it seems as though the vast majority of American adults themselves are unable to do so?

Most Americans believe that the military protects their freedoms and fights for their liberties. But what exactly does that mean in context? How are the liberties of average Americans perpetually at stake? Many Americans would point to threats of terrorism or the prospect of foreign interventions in American affairs. But they seem altogether oblivious to the fact that for well over a hundred years, America itself has been and still is the greatest perpetrator of violence, covert operations, and militaristic interventions in the affairs of other countries. Most of the threats to American liberties from abroad, if they do exist at all, are the results of interventionist foreign policies pursued by American political leaders, corporations, and special interest groups.

Out of the many wars America has been involved in over the last century, only a very few can be characterized as defensive wars to protect the American people. And even those wars (e.g. World War II) brought great economic benefits to American corporations, at the expense of millions of lives and livelihoods of peoples both around the world and here at home. Other examples, such as the Iraq wars, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, or World War I, were all wars which the U.S. entered into on its own volition. These wars, and the vast majority of American-led wars and interventions, were waged mainly for corporate profits and under the guise of either anti-communism or anti-terrorism, but not in actual defense of the life and liberty of the average American.

In 1918, legendary American socialist and trade union organizer Eugene V. Debs characterized wars throughout history as having been waged mainly for “conquest and plunder.” Debs argued that America’s capitalist class has always taught and trained the American people “to believe it to be [their] patriotic duty to go to war and to have [themselves] slaughtered at their command,” while the capitalists and industrialists themselves would reap the economic rewards of war. This notion of war as a highly profitable and lucrative endeavor was corroborated most famously by United States Marine Corp Major General Smedley D. Butler in 1935. Butler referred to war as a “racket” of which “only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about,” and which “is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.” Debs and Butler both argued that private profit, not defense of the homeland, is what drives America’s war efforts.

Today, many Americans don’t seem to share this sense of skepticism toward war and militarism. To most Americans it seems perfectly normal, that anytime the flag is raised and the national anthem is played, whether at sports events, concerts, or public festivities, we automatically equate these acts with supporting the troops and the military. To most Americans it seems perfectly normal to have military fighter jets fly over a stadium before a big game. And to most Americans it seems perfectly normal that children at a very early age are made to stand and pledge allegiance to a flag before they can start their school day. What’s lost on the majority of Americans is that these are hypernationalist expressions of jingoism and fascism, which are usually seen under totalitarian and dictatorial regimes like Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Honecker’s East Germany, or Kim’s North Korea., all of which heavily indoctrinated their society from an early age, and which dictated reverence for and glorification of wars, leaders, and the military. It seems very odd and hypocritical that a supposedly free and democratic country would adopt such principles itself.

Many Americans, both liberal and conservative, are quick to thank a veteran for their service, all while more and more veterans themselves have become critical of such gestures. Some veterans argue that not everyone’s experience in the military was the same, and that thanking them for their service could trigger traumatic experiences and memories. Some veterans even argue that it evokes feelings of “guilt and shame” in them, and that it reminds them of their own “responsibility and culpability for the pain and suffering [they] caused innocent people.” They also argue that the general public doesn’t fully comprehend the “nature and reality” of war. Moreover, veterans may also “doubt the sincerity of these expressions of supposed gratitude” as merely something people say, not because they “care about what [veterans] did or sacrificed, but only to demonstrate [their own] supposed good character, or patriotism.” Other veterans argue that empty phrases of thanks, no matter how well-intentioned, only serve to absolve the public from the cost of war, and that it “lets [them] off the hook for what [they] have—or haven’t—done.“

In any case, these veterans would appreciate actions more than words. So, instead of merely thanking a veteran for their service, more Americans should organize and demand that this country free itself from the stranglehold of corporate control, and provide healthcare, housing, education, and full equality as a right to all people. Yet, while so many Americans pay lip service to supporting military personnel, they seem at best apprehensive toward taking such steps to fundamentally transform their homeland into a country that truly cares for and looks after not just veterans and their families, but everyone in society.

Young children in particular are hardly capable of adequately processing such complex thoughts and emotions about wars and veterans. Therefore, any superficial activity to observe Veterans Day in elementary school hardly goes beyond revering and glorifying militaristic heroism. But teaching young children reverence for war and militarism will not create a better society. Teaching them kindness, equity, and justice, on the other hand, will, because not only would a society based on those values be of much greater service to veterans, but it might even equip future generations with the tools to make militarism and war obsolete.

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.