Norfolk Without the Navy

By David Swanson

It’s hard to imagine a desirable and sustainable world with the world’s largest naval base still in it, but it’s hard for a lot of people in Norfolk, Virginia, to imagine it gone. The military is not just the force of good that selflessly patrols the world, slaughtering evildoers for the betterment of humanity, but it’s also the primary source of jobs.

On Wednesday I visited a new coffee house in Norfolk called OffBase. The motto over its door is “Knowing Is Half the Battle.” This is one of a new, or resurrected, breed of G.I. coffee houses springing up around the country near military bases and offering information and guidance to members of the military who might be inclined to fulfill their duty to refuse illegal orders. Tom Palumbo, the director of OffBase, gave me a useful new guide book produced by the Civilian Soldier Alliance, whose motto is “Supporting Resistance Within the Ranks”.

When I spoke that evening around the corner at the Naro Cinema I said that the entire appearance of Norfolk is an illusion, because the military does not create jobs. Of course, there are military jobs. But they are always at the expense of more jobs. A University of Massachusetts – Amherst study found that investing public money in various other industries, like education or infrastructure or energy, or even cutting taxes, produces more jobs than the military. The choice is military or jobs. We can’t have both.

These topics and a wide range of others are discussed and pursued by various organizations that use the space at OffBase to meet. Across the street is a community garden. In the same old warehouse building are art studios and larger event areas. And next door is an indoor organic local farmers market called the Five Points Farm Market. You want to produce good jobs in Norfolk, or in your town, or in Afghanistan for that matter? Watch this video about Five Points and learn how.

Who knew that Norfolk had such a community of activist initiatives? We don’t have an indoor market like Five Points in Charlottesville. We don’t have a movie theater that works with activist groups. Finding these things in Norfolk would be like discovering that the small rural Virginia town of Halifax had tried to prevent uranium mining by banning corporate chemical and radiation trespass, stripping corporations of constitutional protections, and joining Ecuador in granting legal rights to the environment itself. Oh wait, that happened. Sometimes resistance to the dominant destructive trends of our society can show up where it’s most needed.

I was speaking in Norfolk following a screening of a movie about Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers. In that movie we see how dedicated civil resisters who were protesting the Vietnam War and going to prison moved Ellsberg to tears and converted him from a war participant to a war resister. In reflecting on the prospects for whistleblowing today it becomes clear that something with at least as much potential to help us as whistleblowing is nonviolently resisting.

Steve Baggarly was at the film screening, where he read aloud a statement from Ellsberg about the late Tony Russo, a former Norfolk resident and a former colleague of Ellsberg’s at the RAND Corporation who urged him to make the Pentagon Papers public. Baggarly announced his own upcoming court date this Tuesday. He, like Ellsberg and Russo before him, is facing prison for resisting illegal war.

In September 2008, Baggarly and three others, Susan Crane, Kristin Sadler, and Beth Brockman, went to the Oceana Air Show, where little children were being shown how to use automatic weapons, or at least play with them like toys. The four protesters climbed atop a B-52 and unfurled two banners. One read “We Shalt Not Kill,” and the other “Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Nothing to Celebrate.” They and eight observers were banned from all naval installations from Virginia to Maine. Baggarly was charged with trespassing, because he had already been banned.

Baggarly was tried on November 3, 2008, at the US District Court in Norfolk, Va. Two dozen supporters held a vigil and attended. Baggarly pled not guilty, took the stand and began to relate the story of an Afghan village bombed by B-52s, but the judge forbade such testimony and found Baggarly guilty, sentencing him to one day in jail and two years on probation, granting him however five minutes to make a statement. Here’s what he said:

“Muna is from Kut, a village southeast of Baghdad, that was struck by a US missile in early April of 2003, during the US invasion. The explosion killed Muna’s parents, as well as her four brothers. It also killed her infant daughter, whose name was ‘Iraq’. Muna was the only survivor. She had 10 pieces of shrapnel in her body, from her big toe to her chest. Three pieces of metal were lodged in her head; the largest was five centimeters long. After three months of operations, treatment, and physical therapy, Muna regained the ability to sit up and to move around. She still had problems with dizziness, and used a wheelchair most of the time. The doctors said that her case was the most tenuous case in the hospital.

“Muna now has only partial hearing in her right ear, and suffers from chronic infections. She lost the use of her dominant hand after the explosion. Her left leg is mostly useless. And the surgery they performed to remove the shrapnel in her head could only remove the two smaller pieces. One piece (the largest) remains deeply lodged in her brain, because removing it would likely kill her. Because of her brain injuries, she suffers from intense seizures when not medicated, often resulting in harm to herself or others. She dreads being alone, in case a seizure comes and there is no one there to help.

“Afghan New Yorker Masuda Sultan lost nineteen members of her family while they were taking refuge in a farmhouse outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan, trying to escape the US bombs that began falling in October, 2001. This is her telling her family’s story:

“‘One evening at about midnight, while they were sleeping, they heard some loud noises outside and realized that their area was being bombed. Some rockets hit nearby, and they decided they had to leave their rooms. As they were running outside of their rooms, some of them were wounded by rockets, some of them were being shot at. They described the scene where they were running with their kids in their arms, dodging bullets left and right, while they had — while they saw balls of fire falling down to the earth. They had no idea what was going on, and they were just running in any which direction for their lives. Some of them hid under and area that was covered, and some of them heard word of their loved ones falling to the ground.

“‘They were just women and children running for their lives, being shot at by a helicopter hovering over their home. And these people were not Taliban supporters. They weren’t al-Qaeda fighters. They were simple Afghans, trying to stay safe in their own country. Nineteen members of that extended family were killed. There were many women and children in that nineteen. We met the children that became orphans or that lost their mothers. One of them was a little girl that was a year and a half old, and she had been drinking breast milk, and they were having trouble with her getting used to the powdered milk. But when you see the faces of those little children and they tell you the story of how their mother died on their lap with the blood flowing out of their head and they ran and they ran for their lives, it just breaks your heart. It breaks your heart to know that this is the collateral damage of war.

“‘The events of September 11th really made me angry, but seeing these people and what they went through makes me angry, as well. You know, they say that in war you have to break a couple of eggs in order to make an omelet. But when those eggs are your family, what can you do?’

“Not only can the B-52, like the one we were atop at the air show, drop 1,000 lb. bombs as described in the story I told earlier of the bombing of the Afghan village, but it can also drop cluster bombs. A June 2005 internal memorandum from the U.S. Army’s 42d Infantry Division which describes how a 15-year old Iraqi boy, working as a shepherd, ‘was leading the sheep through north Tikrit, near an ammo storage site, when he picked up an unexploded cluster bomblet. It detonated and he was killed.’ Asked to pay $3,000 in compensation for the boy’s life, the Army granted that his death was ‘a horrible loss for the claimant,’ his mother, but concluded that there was ‘insufficient evidence to indicate that US. Forces caused the death.’

“According to a member of the Federation of American Scientists, ‘Cluster bombs are 1,000 pound deadly munitions that break into 202 bomblets, each of which fractures into 300 fragments of steel. The blast from a single bomblet covers a football field; it can make an apple orchard into applesauce, or people into hamburger…Unexploded munitions are also a concern, the bomblets are yellow with a little white umbrella, and they’re very attractive to children.’ Some 15% of cluster bomblets fail to explode and become de facto land mines. Like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia before them, Iraq and Afghanistan are littered with unexploded bomblets that will continue to kill and maim people there for decades to come, especially children.

“A single B-52 can also carry 20 nuclear armed cruise missiles with the capability of 320 Hiroshima bombs. That one plane can pack more explosive power than has been used in the history of the world. The Air Force has 66 of these bombers. So it is appropriate that our time on the B-52 led to this courtroom. It is precisely US law and the courts which ignores the desires of most of humanity by protecting such omnicidal weapons and the indiscriminate killing they engage in around the globe. In the end, US courts trample God’s law of love for all people, by rubber-stamping every war, every new weapons system, and every military intervention, invasion, incursion, occupation, police action, and special forces operation coming out of the Pentagon—and they are many and constant. The courts protect our world’s largest stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction despite international treaties and laws the US is a party to that declare them illegal and require their disarmament. US courts ensure that if our weapons of mass destruction are one day used to destroy the planet and all life on it, it will be perfectly legal.

“Lastly, blood is on all of our hands. Every US citizen is enmeshed in the structures of empire and militarism. Our troops are put in atrocity producing situations, and we are all responsible through our payment of taxes, our consumption of oil, our votes, and our silence. The gospel call is to turn from indiscriminate killing to indiscriminate love, even for the enemy. We must repent and embrace the way of nonviolence, the way of Jesus, Gandhi, King and Dorothy Day. Our hope is to disarm and redistribute the planet’s wealth. We must stop heaping corpses upon the altar of national security and instead follow God who resides in its victims.”

In December 2009, Baggarly joined others in passing out leaflets about our wars at the Pentagon. A trial in March found six people guilty. Apparently the Pentagon feels threatened by leaflets. On Tuesday, Baggarly goes to court to face the charge of having violated his probation. If he’s asked what he is doing there, I imagine that — like Thoreau — he will respond by asking what the rest of us are doing not there.