Teach-In on Iraq

March 25, 2005

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It’s safe to say that more useful information was conveyed to those hungry for it Thursday night in the Jack Morton Auditorium at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., than has been conveyed in the entire oeuvre of CNN’s Crossfire, which is filmed in the same location.

On the 40th anniversary of the first teach-in on the Vietnam War, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) hosted a teach-in on the War on Iraq. C-Span aired it live. Pacifica Radio planned to air the audio on Friday. And DVDs will be available from United for Peace and Justice.

An hour of discussion by panelists was followed by an hour of questions from the audience. Panelists included Anas “Andy” Shallal, founder of Iraqi Americans for Peaceful Alternatives; Celeste Zappala, a founding member of Gold Star Families for Peace and a member of Military Families Speak Out; Patrick Resta, member of Iraq Veterans Against the War; Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies; Naomi Klein, reporter, columnist, and award-winning author; and Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Coordinator of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq, an initiative of United for Peace and Justice.

Marcus Raskin, co-founder of IPS, provided opening remarks, which focused on a comparison between current times and the times of the Vietnam War. He said that both were marked by government secrecy and arrogance:

“When a society says there is no such thing as collective intelligence, that intelligence resides only in the government, then you know that society is on the way to decline…. Hubris, arrogance is a disaster for any nation, especially a democratic nation.”

Bennis spoke first and also served as moderator. She noted that for the first time the anti-war movement had begun before the war, and that 58 percent of Americans now think the war was a mistake. Much of the discussion that followed focused on the question of how to turn majority opinion that the war was wrong into passionate and active work to end the war. The Teach-In 40 years ago had been over 10-times the size of this one, and that war did not end for another 10 years.

Bennis made a case that “the U.S. occupation is the cause, not the solution, to the violence in Iraq.” And she began a discussion of what would bring peace and democracy to Iraq, arguing that an election did neither.

Klein suggested that we will better be able to end the war if we understand its causes, which she described as a desire for profits: “We need to deny those who made this war their spoils, to make war unprofitable.” In Iraq, she had observed, she said, no reconstruction except on military bases and in the “green zone,” including such facilities as Bechtel headquarters and the US embassy. The only crane she saw anywhere was one lifting a new billboard advertisement. New ads in a demolished city, she said, conveyed the message that the U.S. planned to give Iraq a completely different country, an “Iraq version of extreme makeover.” She noted that the US had protected the oil ministry while letting the rest of the country burn, that Paul Bremmer had laid off 500,000 people and put in place a right-wing fantasy of laws, treating Iraq as a blank slate free of the encumbrances of a democracy.

Resta said he had joined the military after high school for college money “like the vast majority of recruits.” After a year in Iraq, he was speaking out “because our so-called liberal media gave up on something a long time ago: investigative reporting.”

Resta described a reality in Iraq the reverse of what we are usually told: “We were there to help the Iraqis, but we were not allowed to help injured Iraqis unless they were on the edge of death. We were there to rebuild Iraq, but the only rebuilding I saw was on military bases.” Resta said he’d had to take out a loan to buy armor, and that he’d been sent into the field with equipment that had never been tested.

Objecting to Secretary of “Defense” Donald Rumsfeld’s comment that you have to use the army you’ve got, Resta said, “Mr. Secretary, you chose to send this army into war. It’s a shame no one would accept your resignation when you offered it, because I know a lot of people who would.

Resta described the US occupation as breeding terrorism: “We are sowing the seeds that brought about September 11th.”

Shallal, an Iraqi American with friends and family in Iraq, suggested that many “ordinary Iraqis” are worse off now than two years ago. Many have no water or electricity, a problem that will grow more intense in the heat of the summer, he said. In an incident that has become common, his nephew was recently kidnapped and only released when his family paid $50,000.

“Stories don’t come out until there’s a westerner involved,” Shallal said. “Thousands of Iraqis had died at checkpoints before an Italian did.”

There has been an upsurge in fundamentalism, he said. You now see many women covered, which was not common before. A group of male and female students were recently attacked and beaten, and one killed, for traveling together.

Shallal said that he is Sunni and his wife Shia. He described such marriages as common. Colonial powers, he said, tend to harden differences among the colonized. But if the US troops leave, Iraq will not fall apart.

Zappala said that her son had been killed in 2004 in Iraq. He had joined the National Guard because he enjoyed the work and needed the extra money. He had not expected to be sent to a foreign war. And he had died guarding a party searching for weapons of mass destruction “long after everybody knew there were no weapons of mass destruction.”

Sekou thanked Zappala for her testimony and talked about the effects of the war on the poor in this country. He spoke of recently returned veterans who were now homeless. He described inner cities that were already struggling being further deprived of resources. He also spoke of his religion: “Jesus was killed by an empire. What do we want to say to this empire? What do we say to this Pharaoh?”

Sekou got the crowd excited and he urged them to act: “What are those of us in this room willing to sacrifice to end this war?” He urged protests this week, while Congress Members are in their home districts, of every Democrat who voted for the latest $82 billion for war. “We cannot frown on nonviolent civil disobedience,” he said. “If you cannot muster up the courage to do it for yourself and for democracy, I ask that you do it for Celeste [Zappala].”

Given a second turn to speak, Klein said she was concerned that, because Bush was constantly talking dishonestly about “democracy,” some progressives were avoiding the word, or even suggesting that Iraqis don’t want democracy. Iraqis, she said, have been clamoring for democracy since long before the invasion.

Iraqis voted for the withdrawal of troops and against privatization, Klein said. Were they permitted democracy, they would deny the US possession of their oil, remove the US military bases, and reverse the privatization of their economy. The largest anti-war movement, she said, is in Iraq: “We need to echo the voices on the streets of Baghdad and Basra.”

Klein said that we have 58 percent of Americans opposed to the war but no longer have millions in the streets because we don’t have “a serious proposal.” A demand for reparations, she said, has to be central to our movement. This, she said, appeals to people’s sense of responsibility and desire not to “cut and run.”

“We need to leave because we’re exacerbating the problem,” Klein said, “but we also owe the people of Iraq billions in reparations.”

Of course, it’s also possible that we don’t have millions in the streets because the pre-war protests are seen as having failed, because the U.S. failed to elect — or even nominate in a major party — an anti-war candidate for president, because many activist organizations have directed their energies away from the war to other concerns, and because our “so-called liberal media” has convinced people that Social Security is a more urgent concern than the war.

Sekou agreed with me after this event that every policy proposal and framing of the issues recommended here was in the platform of the campaign we worked on together in 2003, Dennis Kucinich for President. See for yourself: http://www.kucinich.us/bringourtroopshome.php

Klein, too, recognized that “the voices are there, but they are not being amplified,” because the US media has shut them out. We need, she said, to make the media a target of our protests. And we need to combine the anti-war movement with the anti-corporate movement and the protests of the World Bank and the IMF. “Show elections are not democracy,” she said. “Real democracy means not being shackled to any of these [IMF] reforms.”

Zappala said that movements are growing in Vermont, Washington State, and in the Midwest to make state governors aware of what the absence of the National Guard means for their states. The Guard, the Army, and the Marines, she added, are unable to recruit now at their usual levels.

Many members of the audience asked terrific questions, some of which were answered better than others. The first question asked was how we can get images of the reality of this war, bodies blown to pieces, in front of the eyes of Americans. I’m not sure the question was ever answered, but one solution is also at this link: http://www.kucinich.us/bringourtroopshome.php

Resta recommended reading soldiers’ stories at http://www.ivaw.net.

One member of the audience advocated supporting the Iraqi resistance. Klein replied that there is not one resistance, that there are groups that are opposed to each other, that we can support particular efforts to form trade unions and start newspapers. Sekou replied that UFPJ cannot support the resistance because it seeks to be a broad coalition. Resta denounced the idea of supporting violent resistance as “disgusting and morally repugnant.” And Zappala said, “We are an anti-war movement. We believe human beings are capable of solving problems without violence.”

Zappala recommended that no one go a day without speaking to someone against the war, in school, at work, with friends. “Don’t allow yourselves to be comfortable,” she said.

Resta recommended political pressure: “Let politicians know they are going to be out of office if they continue to support this war.”

Bennis pointed out the unprecedented support of US labor for the anti-war movement, which is actually stronger than she thought:
http://www.davidswanson.org/columns/mediablackout.htm

Sekou said that UFPJ last weekend had organized small demonstrations in localities around the country, gaining front page stories in small newspapers and building on the Cities of Peace campaign of IPS. He recommended continuing to make the links between the cost of war and our policies at home on schools and prisons. Sekou said that just as people questioned Martin Luther King Jr. about nonviolence by pointing to the example the US government was setting in Vietnam, people now point to Iraq.

Last week, Sekou helped organize an event at Riverside Church that echoed King’s April 1, 1967, speech there on Vietnam. That speech is well worth re-reading today.

David Swanson is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America and can be heard every Monday on the Thom Hartmann Show. His website is http://www.davidswanson.org.

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