War, Religion, and the Israeli Rocket Dancers

Credit: Greg Barrett, Jerusalem, July 14, 2014

See the Huffington Post version HERE.


JERUSALEM (July 17, 2014)– The difference between wealthy and poor when you’re fighting in the Middle East? The former has the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system; the latter is near defenseless.

Sirens in Gaza send Palestinians scrambling for cover every day, yet at least 185 have died to date, e.g., cousins Mohammed Baker (aged 9), Ahed Baker (10), Zakaria Baker (10), and Mohammed Baker (11), killed late Wednesday afternoon. They were fishermen’s kids mistaken as “fleeing fighters,” an Israel Defense Forces official told Haaretz newspaper, following the two IDF airstrikes on a Gazan beach. The first explosion sent the children sprinting toward a hotel; the second targeted them.

Credit: Tyler Hicks, New York Times. The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed.

Credit: Tyler Hicks, New York Times, July 16, 2014. The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, where the Iron Dome has received $720 million in American money since 2011, and, according to Foreign Policy magazine, will likely draw another $350 million in 2015, some Orthodox Jews dance in the streets. Sirens are celebrated. It’s a peculiar reaction to the shrill warning of rockets arriving from Gaza.

The video above shows them dancing earlier this week across from UN offices in Jerusalem along Route 60 (aka Way of the Patriarchs), a north-south thoroughfare connecting Israel and Palestine and stretching from Beersheba to Nazareth. The dance was followed by two thunderous explosions. Overhead. The Iron Dome works. Israeli peacemaker Rami Elhanan tells me that Orthodox Jews dance when faced with a threat to show the strength of their belief, i.e., God will protect them.

Of course if Gazans had the Iron Dome they might also dance.

Yesterday, Hamas urged (ordered?) Palestinians living on its borders to remain in their homes in defiance of Israel’s warning to evacuate ahead of its near-certain ground attack. The Hamas directive elicited an absurd comment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who implied that combat here occurs on an even playing field– as if hundreds of millions of American tax dollars (not to count the annual US $3 billion or so) and an Iron Dome are equally available to both sides.

“We are using missile defense to protect our civilians,” Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday, the same day four Gazan cousins died, “and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.”

Yes, Hamas, poor choice.

In God (and Winnie the Pooh) I trust…

UFC champ Jon Jones (R) defeats Glover Teixeira (L) in Baltimore on Saturday, April 26, 2014

UFC champ Jon Jones (R) defeats Glover Teixeira (L) in Baltimore on Saturday, April 26, 2014

Immediately after UFC champ Jon Jones defended his light heavyweight title last Saturday in Baltimore, Jones, a Christian with a tattoo on his chest reading “Philippians 4:13″ (I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me) kissed a forefinger and pointed toward heaven — or, depending on your secular versus religious leanings, toward the incandescent arc of the cage’s klieg lights.

“All glory be to God,” he told the pay-per-view audience. “Forever and forever, he reigns forever.”

Moments later, before answering questions from UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan, Jones gave Christianity its usual post-fight shout out: “First and foremost I want to thank Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior. Without him I would be nothing.”

Great athletes — and Jones is without question a remarkable MMA fighter — frequently give credit to God or Allah. On Saturday’s pay-per-view main card three of the five winners (Jones, Anthony Johnson and Max Holloway) immediately credited God or “my Lord and Savior” for the victory.

Although I feel certain that neither the Christian God nor his son aka Savior favored any one fighter in Saturday’s various beat downs, I believe that Jones is absolutely correct. Without his belief in a personal connection to a higher and omnipotent power, Jones, as well as other superstar athletes who say they are anointed with God’s blessing, would not perform in ways that appear otherworldly.

However, the same might be said of my devout belief in Winnie the Pooh. I was born the same year (1961) that the rights to Winnie the Pooh were licensed to Walt Disney Productions and, in no time, Disney had worked its magic. I became a believer. Chubby, benevolent Pooh, always dressed in a preshrunk red shirt (or was it an ill-advised midriff?), battled an insatiable appetite for honey. With my weakness for peanut butter fudge and my mom’s early attempts at sewing our clothes, I related. Like our refrigerator door, Pooh was a light in the dark. Even though he had it far rougher than I did, god bless him, he maintained a sunny disposition. He could be naive (I just thought of him as innocent) or slow-witted (understated and modest, I suspected) he developed a massive following, earned billions of dollars for Disney, and, unlike the most heavily perfumed girls in high school, he attracted more friends than bees. Tigger stalked him; Piglet adored him; Christopher Robin was loyal and steadfast.

Yeah, yeah, I know: What in God’s name does this have to do with Jon Jones kicking Glover Teixeira’s butt?

Wow, really? Pooh was also patient. He taught me to listen without interrupting. And if, say, my parents had dragged me to a sanctuary every Sunday where we sang hymns in praise of Pooh and listened to robed men yammer on and on about Pooh’s miracles and Pooh’s wisdom (“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though”) and Pooh’s unconditional love for humanity, I might also believe in Pooh’s omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence.

If, then, I believed that this same power were in me as sure as the blood coursing my veins, I might be able to relax to the point where I could compete with no self-doubt and no fear — utterly comfortable in the belief that the almighty Pooh is in me and will watch over me even as the heavy fisted Teixeira is trying to separate me from consciousness. As long as I am living by the lessons of Pooh and treating others as he did — e.g., as I would want to be treated myself — then maybe the Power of Pooh would be mine.

And it is. It always was, no matter if I pledged Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Atheist, Agnostic or Pooh. When I truly believe that the power of the universe resides within me (this belief waxes and wanes apparently) I act in such a way that I am able to tap it. Jesus or the Buddha or Winnie the Pooh, these are merely conduits for the almighty energy that lies in wait.

Yes, Jon Jones, all glory be to (insert empowering role model/teacher here).


Read Huffington Post version HERE

 

Weapons of Mass Construction: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic

[This week every year Graduation Day reverberates through the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok for hundreds of poor students (nearly 1,000 this year) who are completing the Mercy Centre's three-year preschool program. Several years ago I attended the ceremonies. That experience became Chapter 1 in The Gospel of Father Joe. In honor of Father Joe Maier and Mercy it is excerpted below. The world remains indebted to Father Joe's wisdom and his peaceful way of combating poverty, terrorism, and human trafficking.]

Father Joe delivering the commencement address to Mercy’s preschoolers, March 2007.

[For the Huffington Post version click HERE]

The story begins like the parable it’s become, in a no-man’s-land with the seed of dreams strewn in the most foolish of places: slum rubbish. This was the 1970s when few people believed anything good could grow from the backwater of the undeveloped world. There were no official addresses or property deeds in the cordoned-off corners of Bangkok, nothing much for the municipal books, just putrid ground so primal and bleak that land was free for the staking. It’s where squatters pretended to own real houses and children made do with make-believe.

But these seeds were sown by an angry young Catholic chased from finer society. A priest, stubborn and cursing. The local Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians nurtured that seed, and in time the people and the priest, the abbot and the imam, worked together, as though the Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ were brothers and best friends. No doctrine, dogma, or creed was lorded. No growth tethered chapter to verse. The only belief that mattered was the one they shared. In the children. That was common, sacred ground.

Nourished like this, the seeds exploded with growth. There was a harvest, then another and another. The seeds grow still today, more than three decades later, a genus of hope thriving in the muck, as if it had been indigenous to the slums all along. Tales of it grow too, spreading from those roots in Thailand to the media of North America and Europe, and in the retelling, it can begin to sound legendary. How in Gideon’s name does something grow from nothing and multiply like New Testament fishes and loaves? But nothing about it is myth. Every tale is true.

You can see for yourself when a new crop is gathered each year just before the yearly monsoons. For two, three, and often four days, a cordoned-off corner of the world blossoms in a brilliant hue of graduation gowns.

So it was on the sun struck first week of March 2007– thirty-three years after the first seeds were planted.

The Mercy Centre preschool graduation was standing-room-only; moms, dads, aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins, the neighbor next door and next door to that one. Seven commencements stretched half the week and through a half dozen slums in celebration of seven hundred graduates from thirty-two schools built “officially illegally,” as the priest says, on the Thai government’s squatter land. Children six and seven years old accustomed to flip-flops and hand-me-downs strutted around in black mortarboard caps and matching silk gowns trimmed in a shade of blue my folk back home call Carolina. And while girls and their mothers and aunts fussed with lipstick and rouge, the boys did what boys do: swirl their heads until the tassels on their caps whir like the blades of a helicopter. Dizzy, they fall to the ground.

The priest was there, of course, more bald with each and every harvest. He conferred the diplomas and delivered the commencement address wearing the black and burgundy of Thailand’s revered Thammasat University. Draped across his left shoulder was a velvet sash with white stripes of cotton, thick enough to brush and braid: three stripes in front, three in back representing the honorary rank of a Thammasat Ph.D. If you were new to the slums or to their graduation rituals, a sash like that in a place like that might stop you. It might even if you weren’t.

Arriving at each school, the American known by tens of thousands of Thai as simply Khun Phaw Joe (“Mister Father Joe”) would park down a ways and out of sight. He’d pull on the gown, fix the sash just so, and then begin “the Walk”– a purposeful stride intended to put education on parade. Each route was different but familiar: past walls of plywood, lopsided floors, rusty tin roofs, and bare-bottomed babies; through humidity flavored by garbage and a subsistence watched over by sun-wrinkled village matriarchs who smiled even as they spit pinpoint tobacco-brown streams of betel nut juice. Heads turned to watch. Motorbikes slowed in deference. Cars stopped to let him pass. Old and young joined in, falling in behind or alongside, knowing full well where he was headed, knowing it was time.

In a backwater where nothing good was supposed to grow, graduation today is a rite of passage.

Some of the hardiest seed will scatter and continue maturing. There are graduates thriving now in the high school and college classrooms of North America with majors in economics, business, biology, computer science, and neuroscience. It’s why Khun Phaw Joe gave the Class of ’07 the same speech he has given every class since the Class of ’95 , the same he will give the Class of ’08. Something about it seems to work.

As the Walk approached the first podium, the room fell silent. Pigeons gurgled their Rs, a mobile phone tweeted, somewhere a baby shrieked. Khun Phaw Joe waited. A small, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary sat in a May altar (on cloth surrounded by flowers) next to a Buddhist shrine of joss sticks and a portrait of the Thai monarch (Massachusetts native King Bhumibol Adulyadej) framed in gold leaf.

Fitted for kid-sized attention spans but fired like buckshot, the commencement address was aimed at everyone crowded into the ceremony.

Khun Phaw cleared his throat.

“If you don’t have anything to eat in the morning,” he began, speaking Thai and scanning his attentive audience of children, then go to school!”

Most of the students sat erect or leaned slightly forward on the edge of their benches or chairs.

“If you don’t have any shoes to wear … ,” he continued, pausing for effect, “go to school!”

“If Mommy or Daddy says you can stay home … go to school!

“If your friends want you to sell drugs … go to school!

“If Mommy gambles and Daddy’s a drunk … go to school!

“If all the money is gone and you can’t buy lunch … go to school!

“If your house burns down and you don’t have anything or anywhere to sleep … go to school!

“Go to school! Go to school! Go to school!”

Children joined in, louder and louder, chanting what sounded to me like “Tong by wrong rain high die!”

Go to school! Dhong bai rong Tien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and the neighbor next door joined in.

Khun Phaw Joe directed the burgeoning chorus, his Thammasat gown waving until the bell sleeves billowed.

Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

And that’s the sprint from beginning to now, three decades of harvests. But in the journey, as in the parable, lie the lessons and wisdom of a social revolutionary who bucks convention, the law, and what the rest of us might consider common sense or self preservation.

Father Joe Maier

The Reverend Joseph H. Maier, the eldest child of a philandering Lutheran father and pious Catholic mother, survived his own poverty and dysfunction to become a throwback of sorts: the durable, American-made export. It should be no surprise, then, that he settled on the wrong side of our economic divide and discovered a comfortable fit.

The neglected children of Klong Toey (three hard syllables sounding like a curse but meaning “canal of the pandanus,” a plant growing near the water and cultivated for its flavorful leaves) would put a nice sheen of perspective on his own welfare beginnings.

Today, whenever Khun Phaw Joe feels a pang of self-pity, and often when he sees it rising in others, he quashes it with self-mockery and echoes of an earlier time: “Yeah, yeah, everybody hates me, nobody loves me, all I’m ever fed is worms. That’s my life story. Blah, blah, blah…. Well, guess what? The sun is rising, the rooster is calling, and another day is here. I guess ol’ Joe better get his ass out of bed and get going.”

 

A Mismatch Made in Google’s Universe

Dear Google Search Engine Gurus:

You’ve saddled a poor professorial sap from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with my bio, i.e., the photo of Dr. T. Gregory Barrett and the bio of yours truly are a decided mismatch. The good doctor Barrett is far more educated than me (my grammatical errors are proof) and he refers to his jobs resume as a curriculum vitae. Clearly, he’s not me and vice versa.

You’ve been told many times of this First World catastrophe but evidently you are too busy marrying other Wikipedia bios with photos– for better, for worse and, evidently, forever.

However, when you get a chance could you please help salvage the good name of Dr. T. Gregory Barrett? Untangle us. Set him free.

One Texan’s remedy for War: ‘Preemptive Love’

Jeremy Courtney, Author of "Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time" and cofounder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo courtesy of Howard Books.)

Jeremy Courtney, Author of “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time” and co-founder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo by Abigail Criner.)

When a native Texan named Jeremy Courtney took the stage at the 2012 Q Conference he had no idea he would, in effect, be pitching his 2013 memoir, “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.”

Q conferences are progressive yet evangelical (yes, both) Christian forums, similar in format to the more secular TED talks. This particular Q (stands for Question) occurred in April 2012 in Washington, D.C., seven months before President Obama was reelected. More than 30 speakers ranging from a peacemaking Palestinian Christian (yes, both) to a hawkish Southern Baptist firebrand descended on Washington to inform, influence and otherwise inspire the nation’s sagging Christian majority (not to be confused with Moral Majority). In talks scaled to fit the capital’s rushed schedule and attention span, each speaker was allotted slots of three, nine or 18 minutes.

Courtney, a slender, shaved-headed humanitarian who looks more like a Buddhist than his native Baptist, had scored one of the conference’s grande sizes. Nine minutes. He’d fly six thousand miles from his home in Iraq to speak for less time than it took to board any of his connections. In the Andrew Mellon Auditorium, three blocks south of the White House, he paced on the stage in front of 700 Q “participants,” as the conference refers to its influential attendees. Nine minutes gave Courtney no time for colorful narratives, long anecdotes or drawn-out punchlines. He hardly had time to clear his throat. He got straight to the point.

“It wasn’t an easy morning,” he began, “when I woke up in Iraq with my wife and kids and found out that a fatwa had been issued against us calling for our death(s).”

You could have heard a phone vibrate inside the palatial seven-story auditorium. If he didn’t have them at fatwa (an official ruling given by Islamic clerics) he had them at death.  

It was an evocative beginning to an amazing story (and now book) about a modern-day Gospel. Courtney’s memoir is the Good News of how mending the bodies of children restores hearts— literally and figuratively; theirs, ours and across “enemy” lines. In a blurb I wrote months ago for “Preemptive Love” (Howard Books, Oct. 1, 2013) I describe how the work of Courtney and his upstart international charity could “rewrite the hard wiring that holds humanity hostage.”

The hard wiring, in this case, is the fear that fractures humanity and keeps us locked in our comfort zones. It poses as pride, prejudice, and, often, as absolute faith. It can pit nation against nation, religion against religion, and, ultimately, it’s what drove an Iraqi mullah to order the death of Americans who were saving the lives of Iraqi children.

Preemptive, what I mean by that is this act when we jump to help someone else, to serve another before they’ve done anything for us,” Courtney told to the Q audience. Early in his book he explains it this way:

“I had not named it yet— that passion and joy that caused me to suspend my questions and fears. My military friends had mantras like ‘Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six’ and ‘Shoot first; ask questions later.’ But I had watched Iraq destroy nearly all the people who allowed themselves to live in a constant state of suspicion or cynicism. So I adopted my own motto: ‘Love first; ask questions later.’ Today I call it preemptive love.”

Without any medical training and very little prep, he helped start an Iraq-based international development organization, Preemptive Love Coalition, which facilitates the heart surgeries needed for a massive backlog of sick Iraqi children. Iraqis have suffered three decades of war (beginning in 1980 with Iran), Saddam’s chemical weapons, 13 years of economic sanctions (1990-2003), and countless tons of the depleted uranium and white phosphorus used in U.S. munitions. Its healthcare system is decimated, and, contrary to the controversial findings in a recent World Health Organization study, doctors from across Iraq report alarming increases in cancer rates and congenital birth defects.

Not long after moving to Iraq in 2006 to help rebuild it, Courtney, who’d earned a masters degree in international studies from Baylor University, heard about tens of thousands of Iraqi children suffering from heart defects. On average there are 30 new cases every day in Iraq, he said at the sixth annual Q Conference. But to get the children to surgery, he and his Preemptive Love cohorts took a road less (read: dared not) traveled. At the time, they had no other choice.

They sent Iraqi children to doctors in Israel. In other words, American Christians sent Iraq’s Muslim children to the Jewish state. To be saved. Literally.

In the fatwa, an Iraqi religious leader, or mullah, had used a phrase that immediately resonated with Courtney. “We must stop this treatment lest it lead our children to learn to love their enemies,” he recalled loudly at the Q Conference.

He paused, allowed the revelation to sink in.

“I was scared,’ he continued. “But I was thrilled by the mullah’s conclusion. We were saying the same thing: Be careful, preemptive love works.”

This threat from a high-ranking mullah was definitive evidence for him. It proved the efficacy of preemptive love. Hate could be recast by persistent, selfless acts of charity. War’s barbaric diplomacy could be repaired. Maybe, some day, an enlightened generation of Arab children would bridge the Middle East’s vast divide and make the region whole. Maybe the entire world could evolve.

“Every day in Iraq there seems to be an occasion to wake up again and make the decision to love indiscriminately,” Courtney said, describing for Q participants how his office had almost been blown up, his home broken into and bugged, his staff arrested on trumped-up charges. “Through these postures of preemptive love we’ve been able to go on and earn the trust of Muslims leaders across the country. We’ve made friends out of enemies.”

Eventually, a Muslim friend and sheikh in Iraq intervened on Courtney’s behalf and Preemptive Love continues its work in Iraq today. Better, it no longer needs to choose the road less traveled. Today it is helping to rebuild Iraq’s healthcare system by bringing surgeons into the country and training local doctors to perform the heart surgeries.

“I don’t have time to tell you all of the amazing things God is doing in the lives (of people) across Iraq,” he said, concluding his nine-minute talk, “but I’ll just tell you this: Violence unmakes the world but preemptive love unmakes violence. Preemptive love remakes the world.”

As he exited the Q stage and spoke with participants, a woman asked if she could buy a copy of his book in the store there in the Mellon Auditorium.

“I’ve not written a book,” he said. “I don’t have one in the store.”

She smiled confidently. “Would you like to have one in it?”

Turns out she was an acquisitions editor for a publishing house. That conversation led to others, which soon led to a top-tier literary agent (Chris Ferebee) and, several months later, Courtney signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint, Howard Books. He was given five months to write the manuscript’s first draft.

Between frequent trips to his home near Lubbock, Texas and Preemptive Love’s work in Iraq, Courtney, now 34, expounded on his theology of preemptive love. His nine-minute Q talk quickly blossomed into an inspiring 230-page memoir. At its conclusion, near the end of the Afterword, he writes:

“Where you are sitting in the world as you finish this story may influence how you interpret my idea of preemptive love. If you are in the States, you may think first in terms of American kindness toward enemy Iraqis. If you are in Iraq, however, you may be more quick to see the countless times in this story in which the Iraqis acted first, offering protection, intervening, or taking a risk to welcome us in, even though we were often cast as their enemies. The truth is, preemptive love does not begin in the heart of humanity. Neither Americans nor Iraqis are inherently better at loving first than the other. We are all tribal, programmed to protect our own.

 

Instead, preemptive love originates in the heart of God. The one who made the universe and holds everything in it— the one to whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all ostensibly pointing— is the first and the last enemy lover.”

 

See video: JEREMY COURTNEY at 2012 Q CONFERENCE

Preemptive war opened a Pandora’s box in Iraq

 

Lt. Marcus Amar of Rutba, Iraq, January 2010. Photo by Jamie Moffett

Thoughts, concerns, prayers go out today for the people of Iraq’s western Anbar province, where the BBC is reporting (see HERE) that a suicide bomber rammed a checkpoint leading into downtown Rutba.  At least 19 Iraqi police are dead. It’s the same checkpoint several of us cleared three years ago (see a video HERE), and, probably, some of the same police.

Checkpoint leading into downtown Rutba, Iraq. Photo by Jamie Moffett.

I’m hoping to hear soon about the status of the Iraqis that helped protect us in 2010, especially police officers such as Lt. Marcus Amar.

“Marcus,” nicknamed by the U.S. soldiers who’d trained him in police tactics, was one of the locals appointed by Rutba’s mayor to guard myself, Muslim Peacemaker Teams founder Sami Rasouli, the Simple Way’s Shane Claiborne, Christian Peacemaker Teams veteran Cliff Kindy, and Seattle Mennonite minister Weldon Nisly, among others, when we traveled through war-torn Al Anbar in January 2010. In the interview below, filmed in a darkened Rutba General Hospital after the town’s electricity shut off for the umpteenth time on that day in January 2010,  Lt. Amar tells me and filmmaker Jamie Moffett about the violent transformation of his country, and how he’d reluctantly had to kill a childhood friend.

Before the U.S.-led military invasion in March 2003, Iraq was a mess, for sure. Ba’athist dictator Saddam Hussein was maniacal and merciless. But with last week’s report of 461,000 Iraqi deaths attributable to the war (see HERE), and with ongoing carnage so routine that western newspapers rarely give it significant coverage, even hawkish Americans have to rethink the “wisdom” (if not spirituality) of preemptive warfare.

This is from my interview with Lt. Marcus Amar:

Excerpted from The Gospel of Rutba, pp. 126-127


In his stories, in his eyes, and in the way he chain-smoked a favorite brand of French cigarette, Lt. Marcus Amar looked and sounded far older than his twenty-one years. After Major Gavrilis’s Special Forces had driven out the Fedayeen in spring 2003 and disbanded the Ba’ath Party, Lt. Amar said life was “going well” in Rutba, especially if your family had been living on the wrong side of the Sunni Ba’athists. But beginning in the fall of 2004, an influx of foreign fighters flowed into Rutba from Jordan, Syria, and, especially, from Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Muslims are a vast majority.

 

These holy men ignited a holy war, Lt. Amar said.

 

He was in high school at the time and the insurgents offered him and his teenage friends large sums of money to kill “the enemies” of Sunni Islam, he said. But the armed Americans and Brits were not the only targets. The prey would also be Iraq’s Shia Muslims. If you killed Shia (Iraq’s new political majority), you would be paid, Marcus explained. Even if you killed them randomly and for no reason.

 

“Some of my friends, they join with these guys,” he said. “They train [them] on the snipers and the guns.”

 

The recruits were ages sixteen and seventeen, he said, too young to understand fully what they were getting into. But, he added, “If you have a gun at that time, it means you’ve got the power.”

 

So everyone wanted a gun. That alone was enticement. Lt. Amar had a friend who was forced to murder Shia locals immediately after he’d watched insurgents killing them. The friend said they told him to try killing a Shia and get the taste of it. Just try it, they’d insisted, like it was a sport or an initiation. They promised it would be easy.

 

“And when he did, he said it was easy— it was too easy,” Lieutenant Amar recalled.

 

Soon after, his friend came to him crying. But not crying about the murder, per se. He was crying about his lack of remorse.

 

“I should feel bad,” he told Lieutenant Amar, who wasn’t a Rutba policeman yet. But he didn’t. The friend confessed to his Sunni sheikh, told him how the worst part of the killing was his lack of remorse. According to the friend, the sheikh had responded, “No, that is not what you should feel. You did the right thing.”

 

When Lieutenant Amar began working as an interior ministry policeman in Rutba, he  says his circle of friends changed. It had to. Some of the guys he’d been running with in high school were now “bad guys.” And the friend who had lacked remorse, he’d become “a really bad guy,” he said.

 

One night after Lt. Amar was given a badge and a gun, the friend asked him what he would do if he found him in Rutba carrying a weapon illegally. The question sounded like a challenge.

 

“I would shoot you,” Lieutenant Amar said.

 

Two weeks later, he and another officer responded to a call about two men with weapons outside of Rutba’s only hotel, a mud-brick mom-and-pop on the main drag near Rutba General Hospital. Police and the “bad guys” ended up in a gunfight, and the bad guys lost. When Lieutenant Amar went closer to collect their weapons and see who he had just shot, he recognized one of the dead.

 

“He’s the same one,” he said many months later, playing cards near the end of a midnight shift in Rutba General. “He’s my friend.”

 

As usual, the electricity had gone off in the hospital when he recounted the story. It was cold and dark. Lieutenant Amar looked away for a second, sniffed, studied his fanned-out hand of cards.

 

“So,” he finished, looking up and forcing a smile, “it’s the life.”

 

 

Click HERE to watch video from some of my interview with Lt. Amar.

Washington Politics: ‘It’s all a game.’

You can read the Huffington Post version of this blog by clicking HERE


To anyone who thinks American politics will rise to meet the threat of debt default with any sort of genuine compromise serving the best interest of normal folk, think again. Washington politicians are not particularly loyal to the U.S. or to us (unless “us” is a major campaign donor and corporate player). They are loyal to political parties. Washington is Republican versus Democrat, Red versus Blue, Delta Tau Chi versus Omega Theta Pi. In the Belly of the Beast it’s about teams and games and political hazing.

In effect, the once-gilded streets of American democracy are run amok by the pledges of, say, Delta Tau Chi Capitol Hill.

True story: In May 2008 my wife and I were invited to a dinner hosted by some visiting Republican friends. We met at a fancy D.C. restaurant where we were seated with well-heeled donors from both sides of the political aisle. Two months earlier Sen. John McCain had defeated former Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination. Democrats were still deciding between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The election was six months away.

Arriving late to the table was an affable, well-dressed guy introduced to everyone as “Romney’s right-hand man.” He’d come to the dinner straight from Republican headquarters where he was campaigning for the party’s nominee.

Conversation turned inevitably to the upcoming 2008 election when Romney’s guy shared a GOP confession: McCain scared the daylights out of him. The senator’s infamous quick temper was real, he assured us. Republicans, such as himself, were concerned about what McCain might do if elected to the White House. Hotheads and nuclear codes make for a dangerous mix.

“It’s truly frightening,” Romney’s right-hand said. “The guy is scary.”

But as a Republican loyalist he was now charged with helping elect McCain.

“If McCain is so frightening, what will you do on November 4?” I asked.

He didn’t immediately understand the absurdity of my question.

“When you enter the voting booth, close those curtains behind you and choose between a hothead being named Commander-in-Chief or a Democrat being elected, how will you vote? Isn’t it more important for my children and yours, and for the future of the nation, if you make a responsible decision to vote outside the Republican party? Isn’t it best if you vote to keep someone hotheaded and dangerous out of the Oval Office?”

He looked at me as if I’d thrown back far too many beers.

“No way!” he responded immediately. “I’m Republican. I’m voting McCain.”

I shook my head and feigned shock (I wasn’t surprised.)

“You gotta understand, man,” he said, shrugging and sounding flippant, “it’s all a game.”

The Ideal Speech? Obama’s Extraordinary Opportunity

Jerry Casagrande is a writer focusing on issues about the environment and poverty. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and three children.

GUEST COLUMN by Jerry Casagrande

President Obama has an enormous decision to make regarding our country’s response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons that killed 1429 innocent citizens on August 21. I hope President Obama will have the courage to break from our militaristic past and forge a new future. With public opinion polls and Congressional opinions moving against any form of strike, this may be an excellent opportunity for genuine change.

Although the evidence is still being debated, the Obama Administration says that more than 1400 Syrians died painfully at the hands of what one could only call a war criminal, if the claim is true. And yet, around the world that same number of children die every four hours from malnutrition.

Even in our politically divided country, we can all agree that these deaths — from hunger and from chemical weaponry — are tragic and unnecessary. So here is what I ask President Obama to say in his speech this week:

My fellow Americans, I have looked at the options presented to me by my advisors on how to deal with the Syrian tragedy. I have determined two things:

 

First, that we have very little power to reduce violence in Syria without fully involving ourselves in a war there. And, of course, involving ourselves in a war will greatly increase the violence before it reduces it.

 

Second, as have others before me, I have reached the conclusion that violence simply begets more violence. Imagine if you will that we attack Syria in retaliation for its chemical weapons attack. We will kill men and women who are working at weapons warehouses or factories. These men and women will have children who we will orphan. If our missiles go astray, we may kill children, or the elderly. We will not kill President Bashar Assad, who I believe is most responsible for the 1429 deaths. And, he will use our attack to instigate his own people against us. There will inevitably be more violence and more deaths as a result of our actions. I have no doubt of this.

 

And, so I am embarking our country on a new path. In honor of the 1429 innocents who died on August 21 in Syria, we will spend the same amount of money that a retaliatory attack would cost — let’s call it $50 million — to save thousands, or tens of thousands, elsewhere. We will meet President Assad’s violence with an equal or greater measure of compassion towards the world’s least advantaged people.

 

Children are hungry and dying because of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa, in India and Bangladesh, in Mongolia. In places that are at peace and where we can save lives without endangering American lives or creating a backlash of further violence.

 

What will Assad do in response? I don’t know. He might attack people with chemical weapons. In which case, we will mourn their deaths and respond with equal strength to save even more of the world’s poorest from a premature death. Each attack Assad makes, we will respond with kindness to the world’s most vulnerable citizens.

Or he may, eventually, be embarrassed and pressured into reducing his own violence. He might, like the South Africans who dismantled Apartheid after years of the world’s disdain, relent and rejoin the world community of peaceful nations.

 

I don’t know. But I do know this: Our action will save destitute children from death from malnutrition and it will lift up the name and reputation of these great United States as not just the most powerful country on earth, but also the most compassionate.

Tonight, I am directing my staff to prepare a list of sites where we can provide immediate assistance — to improve water access, improve agricultural yields, improve long-term access to food — to save the lives of thousands of children.

 

President Assad, the people you have killed have not died in vain. The United States honors their deaths by reaching out to save others from the death sentence of poverty and hunger. 

Some may say that this approach has us turning our backs on the Syrians. But, both an attack on Syria and a non-response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use has us turning our backs on the children dying of hunger. We live in a world of limited resources. Let us use our resources where we can to peacefully save lives rather than to violently act out in ways that may only increase the death toll.

Others with a practical bent will argue that this approach can’t happen because it requires us to turn our backs on the military-industrial-political complex, that lives off the teat of the Pentagon and that pays dividends to America’s wealthiest and most influential.

But, what if that complex can be co-opted ? What if there are profits and jobs to be had doing the good work of saving lives rather than the work of taking lives in the name of peace? What if contracts for building hospitals, providing farm equipment, building wells and cisterns, are open to the likes of Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglass, or a host of other defense industry corporations?

And, what if our good men and women of the service are sent to build rather than to destroy? Sent to do so in places that are already peaceful? They would not lose a paycheck. And one wonders, would they return from those places with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or would they return feeling fulfilled?

America does not want another war. And, we really do not even want an attack for fear of the war it may lead to. Now is the time to do real good in the face of extraordinary violence.

I hope the President is wise enough to see his opportunity and brave enough to take advantage of it.

Ten reasons why (more) war is inevitable

Damascus, capital of Syria. Photo credit, James Gordon, Los Angeles, Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Seems like just yesterday the United Nations and the world population appealed to the good sense of Washington … and then learned it had none. Good sense, that is. Today I feel as if we’re watching a sorry remake of Groundhog Day, except, unlike Bill Murray’s character, there is very little we can do to alter the foretold consequences. We’re trapped in a badly broken political system.

If not Syria this week or this month or this year, it will be next week or next month or next year. And if not Syria, it will be Iran, Lebanon or North Korea, or some other “threat” that needs eliminating.

Why am I so jaded and cynical about Washington and its motives? As a journalist who’s traveled through the Middle East a half dozen times in pursuit of interviews, perspective, news stories and books, I can immediately think of ten reasons:

1. Washington does not listen and respond to the general tax-paying public or world at-large. From my experiences and reporting it listens and responds foremost to deep-pocketed political donors and their lobbyists, e.g., Wall Street and K Street.

2. Wall Street and K Street are motivated primarily by self-interest and cannot be trusted by the general public in the United States or abroad. Why? The U.S.-Congressional Military Industrial Complex produces profits for the wealthy and jobs for key political constituencies. With those come job security for politicians and beach homes for the wealthy.

3. Washington has become a country club for Wall Street and K Street, and it is today a (willing) tool for repeated schemes of greed and deception.

4. This latest deception is no different than many others, e.g., the invasion of Iraq. The script depicts good-guy Washington standing on moral ground threatening to bomb an “evil” dictator because of unproven allegations. Yes, that’s redundant. For a reason. I’m stressing this point: These charges are unproven.

5. After dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs and ammo (many with depleted uranium) onto Iraqis (see HERE a declassified military count of just the first 30 days of the war), the only place Washington can successfully pretend to be moral is in the eyes of the U.S. media and electorate. The rest of the world knows better, especially citizens of the Middle East. To a person, every Middle Easterner I’ve ever interviewed is dumbfounded by Washington’s ability to fool its electorate again and again. (Remember, Dubya was reelected after botching the invasion/occupation of Iraq.) Yet, here we are. Again. Hooah! Go ‘Merica. Support the troops! We’ll be watching on CNN.

6. Twelve years ago when Washington ramped up its role as Middle East protagonist the stock dividends of the top five U.S. “defense” (aka war) contractors ballooned, e.g., Lockheed Martin’s per-share stock dividends increased 680 percent between 2001-2011; General Dynamics’ 336 percent; Boeing’s 250 percent; Northrop Gruman’s 250 percent; Raytheon’s 190 percent. (Those numbers are from my reporting in “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.”) And, evidently, the war biz is still thriving. Read (HERE) a September 2013 report on record high profits and stock prices for U.S. military contractors.

7. In the United States there is an insane disconnect between the civilian population and its military, i.e., less than one percent of Americans served in uniform during the last decade, which was the nation’s longest-ever stretch of sustained conflict, according to Defense Department and Pew Research Center reports. In effect, if working class kids (in general) want the opportunity to go to college or find well-paying jobs they must first serve four years in the Washington-Wall Street-Israeli Military Industrial Complex because there are so few manufacturing jobs left in the United States. This arrangement serves the U.S. middle and upper classes (where I reside) very well. Our kids don’t have to put their lives and mental well-being on the line fighting the Crusades in the Middle East while trying to secure Israel’s “right” to ignore international law. (Anyone who thinks U.S.-Israeli politics do not travel hand-in-glove in the Middle East needs to climb off their Judeo-Christian air-conditioned tour bus and walk around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc.)

8. This comfy arrangement will remain intact indefinitely because it enables the rich to get richer (aka Wall Street and K Street) without the majority of the U.S. electorate having to worry about their sons and daughters dying in a far-off desert or coming home with PTSD. Meanwhile, the 99 percent of us who didn’t wear a military uniform during the last decade are too busy paying bills and/or managing our beach homes to give much attention to the Washington-Wall Street profit schemes.

9. Unless the United States reinstates a military draft — thereby forcing the overall electorate to examine the real motives that drive Washington’s warmongering — American military aggression will continue to spread regardless of the opinions/advice of the United Nations and the world at-large. Congress knows this. Therefore, I don’t anticipate the reinstatement of military conscription. Washington hasn’t used it since 1973.

10. I suspect Washington’s outrage about chemical weapons isn’t about dead Arab civilians or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have been killed by the U.S. military. In Iraq, the Pentagon claimed it wasn’t even keeping score. Washington’s shock and outrage over Syria is more about theater. War’s theater, specifically. (Ever read Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine“?) Washington wants to get at Iran, Hezbollah, etc. To repeat, these allegations leveled at al-Assad’s regime are just that– allegations. It seems plausible that outsiders (the Mossad? Rebels? Terrorists?) could have deployed the Sarin gas in order to draw history’s mightiest and most gung-ho military deeper into the conflict.

Of course, all of this is from the admitted jaded perspective of a cynical Washington journalist. Me. So to add balance I sought the input of a more optimistic world traveler, a wise Catholic priest working on the gritty side of the world’s widening economic divide. Rev. Joe Maier was the subject of my first nonfiction book, “The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions & Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok.”

This is what he had to say on Monday about the “wisdom” of Washington bombing Syria:

“Pope Francis said (yesterday?), ‘Never has the use of force brought peace in its wake. War begets war. Violence begets violence.’ … One might write a piece about fasting and penance and prayer, and that the present solutions of the kingdoms of this world ain’t really working too well. … If you read or see the latest Hobbit movie, notice that when the dwarf king tells Gandalf that there is a terrible evil force lurking, and that they (the good guys) need a huge force to combat and conquer, I believe Gandalf tells the Dwarf king, ‘No … what we need are countless acts of goodness and kindness.’

“The world needs to make a huge statement about helping the (Syrian) refugees and starting schools and hospitals. I think that might do far better than bombs, etc.”

Speaking to my own cynicism about Washington and Wall Street, Father Joe added, “That’s what happens when you can no longer trust your sacred institutions such as government and church. Therein lies the crux of the matter.”


FOR MORE PERSPECTIVE ON WAR & PEACE, see the last minute of Greg’s speech in Boston HERE.