Saturday, April 15, 2006

Drew, Anthony and Howard draw 150+ in Boston

Last night more than 150 people showed up to hear Drew, Anthony, and Howard make the case for withdrawal from Iraq. The majority of the crowd was students at Northeastern University and there was a lot of energy and excitement. The event was kicked off with greetings by John Moore of the National Lawyers Guild at Northeastern University (one of the local cosponsoring groups). He welcomed folks on behalf of NU Law School and the National Lawyers Guild. He explained "The NLG speaks in many voices and works on a diverse array of causes. However, there is one issue on which we speak together in one voice ….and that is the issue of the war and occupation in Iraq. We feel the need to consistently take a clear and united stand against what the US is doing in Iraq."

It was Drew's first time speaking publicly about his experience serving in Iraq and his comments touched on a number of issues: he was not gung-ho when he went, but was further convinced through his experience that the war was wrong; the hypocrisy of the US's stated goals and aims for the occupation versus its actions in practice; the shameful way soldiers were treated there (exposure to depleted uranium); the brutal disregard for Iraqi civilians, and the simple questionnaire filled out upon completion of service; etc. Anthony gave a summation of the points raised in his book, and put forward a clear and compelling case as always. Howard finished off with comments and insights about the nature of democracy, the importance of historical perspective, and the necessity of individual and collective action for social change.

The Q&A was more wide-ranging than some of the other events. Just a few examples of note: Is it possible to just oppose the war as a human issue versus a "political" question of Democrat versus Republican or Left and Right? Anthony responded by clarifying that "politics" does not just mean Democrat or Republican and that the book calls for the antiwar movement to take a stand that is distinct from and independent of the weak "opposition" of the Democratic party. Another audience member spoke about the "El Salvador" option and whether that was indeed the route being pursued in Iraq. Others revisited the connection drawn in Anthony's comments about the positive example of the immigrant rights movement and its recent explosion onto the streets.

These comments below are from Julie Keefe, one of the organizers of the event in Boston:

As the 2006 election season approaches, it seems like most politicians are angling to run their campaigns on nearly any issue that is not Iraq. Additionally, the antiwar movement is struggling to overcome its own underconfidence and confusion—and did not organize a massive national protest on the third anniversary of the war. Even though the antiwar majority has not yet found mass organized expression in the streets, John’s opening comments were a timely reminder that despite the best efforts of Bush and Co. the war in Iraq is still the issue in US politics. This is true because of the unparalleled scale of the injustice being committed there and because of the depth of anger and antiwar sentiment amongst people in the US that is reflected in poll after poll.

No one is able to speak to the reality of the situation in Iraq better than those who have seen it. Iraq Veterans Against the War member Drew Cameron was in Iraq for eight months, starting in April 2003. Drew was in the audience at the End the War tour stop in Burlington, VT. After meeting him, some (smart!) person on the tour asked Drew if he would be willing to get in his car the very next day to drive 4 hours and speak at the Boston event…and he agreed! All of us in Boston are very grateful for that. He added so much to the event. He started by giving the audience a picture of his first impression of Iraq—which was of the huge, oppressive black cloud of thick smoke (and its smell) that hung overhead from burning waste. In conversations after the event, several people recalled that a similar image and smell was burned in the memories of those who witnessed the US devastation of Vietnam.

Drew told a moving story that illustrated the contradictions between what the US military claimed it was in Iraq to do… and what it was actually doing. There was a sign over the door at his base that said “Working Together with the Iraqi People for Peace and Prosperity”. He recalled one day when in a convoy moving into Baghdad (because the huge military vehicles move slowly) regular cars were always passing the military vehicles. At one point, a regular car had pulled in between two of the military vehicles, looking to pass them. Without warning, the first military vehicle stopped short. The car behind it tried to stop short, as did the military vehicle behind the car. However, the heavy military vehicles cannot stop quickly and the car was crushed between the huge vehicles. Drew and other soldiers got out of their vehicle to see an Iraqi father desperately pulling his bleeding son from their destroyed car. As Drew began to think of what could be done, the soldiers received their orders to get back in their vehicles and move the convoy along… leaving the injured father and his severely injured son stranded, with no transportation or possible way to get to a hospital. As they pulled away, Drew recalled his horror. “We had medics, trained medics and supplies with us…and we were ordered to leave them there”. The sign above the door at his base came into his mind. “Working Together with the Iraqi People for Peace and Prosperity.” He was able to give a real sense of how a sign like that can go from representing some sort of ideal or lofty goal to being a sick, cruel joke in the eyes of so many soldiers in Iraq.

Drew also told us about the construction of permanent military bases with huge generators, dining halls, even stores where you could purchase “Operation Iraq Freedom” key chains and other memorabilia! He saw a mini-city constructed at the Anaconda military base in a few short months. This raised serious questions in his mind about how long the US was planning to stay in Iraq. He left us with another haunting question. “Why couldn’t the same thing be done in New Orleans?”

Drew’s final point was about the slogan of “Support the Troops.” The people in the Bush administration and Congress who tell people in the US to support the troops are complete hypocrites, he said. The Veterans Administration budget was recently cut so that medical facilities will not just be unable to expand to meet the growing medical needs of returning soldiers BUT they will not even be able to continue operating at their current capacity and level of services… they will have to scale back services just as the need becomes greater than ever! Drew's message was “If you want to support the troops, bring them home immediately.”
Anthony Arnove started by reminding us that a Zogby poll showed that 72% of the troops in Iraq think the US should pull out ASAP, with 23% of them saying the pull out should be right now. Anthony had so many useful polls, articles, statistics, quotes and articles. It can be so hard to find real information about Iraq amidst all the lies and garbage and Anthony’s information and analysis was just what many audience members were looking for. One thing that particularly stuck with me was that the Red Cross's own estimate is that 70%-90% of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib are being held for no reason at all!

Anthony went through a useful history of the lies that have been used to justify the war and occupation. First, there was the series of different lies that were used to justify the invasion (WMDs etc., etc.). Now the format of the Administration’s lies sounds like “Once we do [FILL IN THE BLANK], then things will be stabilized and we can start to pull out.” Whether the blank was filled in with “capture Saddam” or “have elections for an Iraqi government,” the excuses turned out to be lies. Now it is especially ridiculous that Bush is saying “We will leave when the insurgency is put down…” or “We will leave when the threat of civil war is removed…” It is the US occupation that is the reason for an insurgency and the source of sectarian conflict! This logic only serves to put the time for US withdrawal at some undetermined point in the future that can always be pushed back and is NEVER NOW. It’s like giving someone a long brutal beating, with the perpetrators all the while telling the victim that they won’t stop until the victim stops struggling and stops bleeding.

In addition to revealing the flawed logic of the “withdraw later, continue the occupation now” perspective, Anthony quoted from Bush administration National Security Strategy documents to highlight the REAL aims of the war and occupation—which have everything to do with controlling the oil resources of the Middle East. Whoever is positioned to control those resources will be the top dog in the world economy in the coming years. National Security documents lay out the US government’s central concern—which is “preventing the emergence of peer competitors.” Halliburton, Bechtel and their reps in government can’t afford NOT to be in control of Middle East oil if they want the US to remain the sole superpower dominating the world. Meanwhile, regular people in the US and around the world pay the price in blood and living standards. Anthony made a clear and powerful case that the longer the US is there, the worse it gets. Every day that the US is there is a day closer to civil war and a day further from democracy, rebuilding and decent lives for Iraqis. A student I spoke to was very excited by Anthony’s presentation. She said “I have never heard all that stuff said all together and with so much information. I wish I could have brought all my friends.”

It was awesome to have Howard Zinn speak at the Boston tour stop! He was able to put the discussion of withdrawal from Iraq in broader political and historical perspective. He reminded us that what the US is doing in the world is not the result of the people in the US, but the “group of aliens” who have taken over and run our country. He was a very funny speaker. But he was serious in making the point that the problem is bigger than the Bush administration.

The Democrats are not an opposition party. There is no opposition party in this country. And when there is no opposition party, the people must the opposition party, the people must organize themselves to be the opposition. This was heartily applauded. He said that, although it might not seem like it sometimes, history shows us that governments are not all-powerful. They need regular people to do all the work, to make everything and to be the soldiers in their wars. Without that, they are helpless. The recent victory in France is a powerful example of that. He reminded us that governments always tell their soldiers and citizens that their wars for empire and conquest are in the name of “spreading democracy.” This is necessary because we would never support the true intentions of their wars. But people begin to see through the lies. He pointed to the Soldiers' Rebellion during the Vietnam War as one of the most decisive, yet least known-about aspects of the movement that ended that war, leaving many of us interested in learning more about that history. A book Soldiers in Revolt and a movie Sir, No Sir were mentioned by the speakers. He spoke powerfully about the movements of the 1960s and 70s and raised important questions about the fundamental nature of a system that NEEDS war. He was a great speaker—so funny, humble, engaging and knowledgeable.

The audience of people had many questions and comments—more than there was even time for… many interesting questions and debates came up. Several questions were about what would happen in Iraq when the US pulls out and another asked how exactly Iraq would get rebuilt. Other important debates that came up were on the questions of “does protest matter?” and “what should the role of politics be in the antiwar movement?” One woman asked a question on the minds of many, which was why the immigrants' rights movement was seeing such an explosion in the streets while the antiwar movement was not. The speakers addressed these questions excellently (read Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal for more specifics). One point that I wanted to highlight was about the development of movements, addressed by both Anthony and Howard. Howard said that the experience of building movements was, mostly “discouragement and defeat, discouragement and defeat…until you win.” He went on to say that it can feel daunting and impossible if you feel like everything depends on the efforts of the antiwar movement. There are other critical factors he said—developments in Iraq, in the military, in US politics. It was not the organizers of the antiwar movement who brought hundreds of thousands to the streets on Feb 15, 2003, nor the millions who have protested for immigrants' rights in recent weeks. It was an outpouring of anger at developments in the world.
It matters though, Zinn said, that we talk, organize, protest and involve others in our schools, workplaces and neighborhoods. In our day-to-day organizing efforts, he said, “We need to have a kind of faith, not based on the scriptures, but based on history…” that as we do our work, events outside of us will unfold and, at certain points, come together in such a way as to make our efforts worth it, magnifying and multiplying the importance of the hard work done. Keep doing what you are doing, he said—it matters.

At a time when the question of whether we can be for troops out now is so central to the movement, the event gave a much clearer sense of why and how to do that.

Right after the event I talked to a high school student visiting from Seattle for Northeastern’s prospective student Weekend. She had seen a chalking in one of the quads for the event, and decided to check it out. “That was…the best thing ever. I’m so glad I came. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’m definitely psyched to come here in the fall and be involved in stuff like this.” I talked to a different woman who had been involved in the antiwar movement a couple years ago but not recently. She loved the event, saying “I really feel like I want to get back into things. We need a lot more things like this.” I heard about several similar conversations— people feeling re-energized and re-interested in figuring out how end the war. I know one meeting doesn’t change everything, but it certainly can help. After the meeting, a whole bunch of people were still in the entryway area, talking to each other, exchanging information, and getting copies of Anthony’s book as well as other antiwar literature. I haven’t seen that sort of thing at Northeastern for a while. It was great! The event was both clarifying and inspiring. Thanks so much to all the speakers!

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